Renato Redentor Constantino

On the corner of Rizal Avenue and Doroteo Jose stands the Manila Grand Opera Hotel, a fabulist if the establishment were a person.

350 Pilipinas Sintang Lakbay. PHOTO / LEO M. SABANGAN II


This is about the history of a place that has gone through many costume changes, a story bursting with intersectionality, with a past so implausible it should be celebrated annually by poets and climate activists alike. Because yes, in the truly grand manner: only in the Philippines.

Immerse at the Manila Grand Opera. Try the Sintang Lakbay Filter on Instagram!

In one breath: where else can you find a modern hotel that began as a national cycling racetrack owned by a Syrian that became a national theater that attracted the fabled Russian Circus Troupe, that transformed into the majestic Manila Grand Opera House (MGOH), pulling in renowned Italian tenors and the magnificent Jovita Fuentes, a place that staged boxing matches, gave roots to bodabil – our vaudeville –and where the country first tasted “American democracy” when the inauguration of the Philippine Assembly was opened by a U.S. Secretary of War and where, just three decades later, the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP) merged with the Socialist Party of the Philippines.

Red Constantino shares the history of the Manila Grand Opera Hotel. PHOTO/ Leo M. Sabangan II


From its bicycle velodrome origins in 1892, ownership moved in 1942 to Toribio Teodoro, the magnate of a shoe business named Ang Tibay – literally, The Durable – and indeed it was, at least for the place. The following year the establishment burned down mere months after it was inundated by a flood only to rise again; the footwear enterprise folded in two decades but the theater live on as the New Manila Grand Opera House with a new tagline – “the theater with a history.”

On its stage sang the Sylvia la Torre and Pilita Corrales, with Rodolfo Vera Quizon (Dolphy) and Adelaida Fernando-Villegas (Dely Atay-Atayan) seeding the country’s clouds of laughter. This is where the duo Conrado Piring and Perfecto Piñon–Pugak and Tugak–gave boisterous joy to so many. There bodabil lifted to fame Mariano Contreras and Arturo Vergara Medina–Pugo and Bentot–and long before he became the vice mayor of Makati, the country’s financial center today, Augusto Valdes Pangan was performing in the MGOH during the Japanese Occupation when he was only 13: First as Mr. Boogie-Woogie and later as Chiquito, the comedian. Maybe showbiz with politics is the original Philippine cocktail?

But the rise of cinema spelled the decline of theater and soon the Manila Grand Opera House fell slowly into disrepair, the decay accelerating as the advent of television spelled the decline of moviehouses. By the 1970s, the “theater with a history” was showing soft porn, which killed bodabil. Eventually it became a girlie bar named Chicks O’Clock, and in 2008, it was reborn as the Manila Grand Opera Hotel, a place of calm and refinement compared to the squalor of many of its decaying concrete neighbors.

As for USA-style democracy, a few facts of history will suffice. Two cast iron memorials by the “Philippine Historical Committee” are all that remains of the Manila Grand Opera House ruin; one dated 1940 is standing at the main entrance. It gives interesting details of the first Philippine Assembly: that it was held on 16 October 1907, “inaugurated … by … William Howard Taft” (later the first governor general of U.S.-Occupied Philippines and, two years after, the U.S. President). The plaque states, “Of the 80 duly elected delegates, 79 were present.” What it doesn’t say is that the only Filipinos allowed to vote were citizens at least 21 years-old, who had held office under the Spaniards, owned real property, and who “could read, write, or speak Spanish or English.” Only 1.41 percent managed to vote – which meant the elite voted for, of course, their own. American democracy indeed.

The memorial makes no mention of another key fact: loved by the masses, and vilified by the Occupiers, Gen. Macario Sakay, a Katipunan original who fought alongside Andres Bonifacio, had decided to lay down his arms in July 1906. American authorities had told Sakay he was the only impediment to the establishment of a Philippine Assembly that could secure the nation’s autonomy. When Sakay went down from the mountains of Tanay he was celebrated by the people of Manila and invited to receptions and banquets. But Sakay did not get to negotiate the country’s future. On the invitation of an American officer, Sakay joined festivities in a house in Cavite. There, Sakay and his companions were disarmed and arrested, victims of U.S. duplicity. On 13 September 1907, Sakay – the main symbol of national resistence – was hanged in what is now called the Manila City Jail. The Philippine Assembly Taft opened was established a month later.

What about the other cast iron memorial? It is dated 1948 and tells the reader, after the edifice burned to the ground on 16 November 1947, “a new building was erected … [in] 1947.” The plaque can be found in the shade of a shrub by the entrance of a parking lot. It might make you think of the place’s cycling origins and mobility, which might make you see a little seen angle of our current “democracy”: Did you know at least 88 percent of Metro Manila’s families do not own their own cars? This means for decades we have been building infrastructure only to serve the needs of a tiny minority.

A return to the cycling racetrack origins of Manila Grand Opera Hotel is timely, but not for fitness or climate change reasons alone. The place is a compelling call for integrative pedagogy and certainly, it should generate interest in anyone following the divorce debate in today’s congress.

The ciclo nacional velodrome was the project of Nadjib Tannus Hashim, who with his brother, Amin, came to the Philippines in 1892. He was so astute as a businessman the American Chamber of Commerce called him “the real pioneer of the American commercial establishments in the Philippines.” Unlike “The first American businesses in the Philippines … [which] were established … to supply… [the needs of] the American military government,” Hashim was active in the entertainment field (cycling races, concerts, the opera house) and sold jewelry, which began with “an original trading stock of American watches.” Later the Hashim brothers became a “supplier of uniforms” to the U.S. Army. Walter Robb, editor of the Journal of the American Chamber of Commerce, wrote in 1923 that Amin Hashim, Nadjib’s brother, “was an intimate friend of Rizal” who had even offered the hero means to escape from Dapitan.

Look him up. When you type “N.T. Hashim” search engines will bring you to what may be the origin story of alimony and divorce in Philippine jurisprudence. Just as interesting is a rabbit-hole-of-a-story so intricate it deserves its own book.

N.T. Hashim’s businesses eventually covered ownership of vast pieces of real estate. Here’s one instance: Case record L-30098 in the Philippine Supreme Court shows “the expropriation of a parcel of land belonging to N. T. Hashim, with an area of 14,934 square meters, needed to construct a public road, now known as Epifanio de los Santos Avenue.” And somehow there’s always more to discover.

Different sources provide conflicting claims: Nadjib is either the brother, the husband, or the brother in-law of Wadi’ah Hashim. What seems undisputed is how the woman, who changed her name to fit in shortly after her arrival in the Philippines, later came to own much of what is still called New Manila today. She first married a Lebanese, who gave birth to Ysmael Steel. And when she married again, her new name became Magdalena Hemady.

As John Berger once counseled, instead of using history as a hammer to bludgeon your adversary, treat history as a companion that can make life far more interesting.


Artwork by Ara Alejo

Sintang Lakbay is a historical walk and bike ride to promote inclusive mobility by facilitating active interaction with urban landscapes, restoring working-class memory in national history, and mobilizing public contributions to remembering through art and research. It is a collaborative project by The Polytechnic University of the Philippines, 350 Pilipinas, and the Constantino Foundation