See how Manila’s nightlife is struggling to stay alive during the pandemic

With street parties, holes in the wall bars, and a synergy among insiders, Poblacion is a place where the people of Manila go on a new adventure weekend after weekend. It has rooftop bars, underground bars, and clubs – the Philippine capital’s answer to London’s Shoreditch or Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong.

At least that’s how most remember it.

Today, as the Philippines struggles to contain the pandemic, beers are kept in unplugged freezers, neon signs are barely readable in the dark, chairs are neatly stacked on tables, doors are chained and locked and posters reading “FOR RENT” hang on beloved establishments. It is even easy to find a parking space.

“To be honest, I don’t wander around Poblacion anymore,” said Mike Hearn, owner of Run Rabbit Run cocktail bar. “It is mainly because, to see vestiges of places which were once there, full of life, reduced to an empty shell, it is very sad. When you see these things, the thoughts of “What about us?” Are we next? ‘ come to mind.”

“To see vestiges of places that were once there, full of life, reduced to an empty shell, is very sad.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday eased restrictions in Metro Manila, declare a “general community quarantine” from Wednesday and at least until the end of the month, which will allow restaurants and bars to continue operating at limited capacity and under several safety and sanitation requirements. Curfews have also been shortened to 12 a.m. to 4 a.m., from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.

While it may benefit establishments, more than a year of movement restrictions have changed people’s exit habits, leaving businesses and consumers with no real clue as to what to expect.

“It’s quite dead,” said Isabel Cabal, a regular at Poblacion who has seen her favorite haunts closed. “There was a time when I passed and it was not the same. People were walking home. This is the saddest part. The neon has been reduced. People don’t even talk to each other while walking. They’re just looking down or straight ahead, that’s all. I hated it.

Hearn explained that many other businesses in Poblacion have already closed, while those that have managed to stay open are still struggling to find their place in a maze of operating restrictions.

Some establishments, like Run Rabbit Run, have learned to pivot. In April 2020, about a month after lockdown was triggered, Hearn and his team launched a cocktail delivery service, followed by virtual cocktail-making classes. These keep the business alive.

Other establishments were not so lucky.

“I was so scared to go to these places knowing that some of the waiters were gone,” Cabal said. “If there is anyone who creates the atmosphere, it’s them.

Many parts of Poblacion were former residential areas, physically just on the outskirts of Makati’s business district, but in another world in terms of vibe and energy. A street can smell like tacos or grilled chicken intestines and liver. Further down you might find the best cocktail bar in the country, or cheap beers and drinks served in fish bowls with a bunch of straws. One place was an apartment turned into a bar, with a bed; several others were old renovated houses.

It was a playground for artists, musicians, young professionals and conductors. The establishments were small and authentic. The atmosphere was relaxed, raw and real, in stark contrast to the waxed tiled floors and bright fluorescent lights of the city’s malls.

“You have to think about what made Poblacion. It’s the raw environment, it’s being on the edge of the red light district, it’s the crowd of people side by side, loud music, people dancing, people drinking on the road, laughing , kiss, kiss. [It’s the] different bars and restaurants, it’s going out without a plan, it’s adventure, it’s the smell, ”Hearn said.

“There are so many things that make it special, and it’s not something you can recreate; it sort of happened very naturally. Everyone went there, everyone brought something different, and that’s what helped make it as special as it was. Now without all of these things what is Poblacion? “

Many fear the recent closures will change Poblacion forever.

“We are now seeing a different kind of businessman coming to Poblacion,” said Rommel Marasigan, owner of Z Hostel.

Before the pandemic, their rooftop bar was packed with people almost every weekend. Today, without hostel customers, they’ve turned the bar into an open-air restaurant that operates at a fraction of its capacity.

“They are willing to spend a lot of money right now to get spaces that aren’t even vacant,” he said. “I’m worried about this. Culture is different – cut throat. Money is money and business is business so I can see that could change a bit for some areas.

Marasigan said Poblacion was built and thrived on bayanihan (working together as a community). Losing that would mean losing what makes the place special. He recalled that another bar was once called Z Hostel in the middle of a busy night to borrow dozens of cases of cold beer after they run out. Within minutes, their bar team was hauling the drinks down the street, with patrons greeting them with howls and cheers. It was not an isolated case. Hearn remembered how bartenders at other establishments would tell their customers to have their next drink at Run Rabbit Run, and the bartenders at Run Rabbit Run did the same. Today, working in community is both more difficult and more important.

Hearn is hopeful things can get back to how they were before, while adjusting to new lifestyles.

“It’s going to take a lot of thought and coordination between the bar owners, and even the local government, to understand how we reopen Poblacion and how we do it in a way that our customers feel safe,” he said. he declares. mentionned.

For Marasigan, this time is a reset, to work on issues that have plagued the area in the past – traffic, parking and complaints from residents.

Cabal, meanwhile, is just thrilled to see the community she loves again.

“Poblacion will light up again,” she said. “[It] will have all its people who will return there.

Follow Romano Santos on Instagram.

About John McTaggart

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