[This story first came out in Rogue Magazine, the September 2017 issue.]
You can tell what’s currently fueling the economy just by watching the lobby of the Peninsula Manila. "Now, its mining,” says the indomitable Evelyn Lim Forbes, sitting next to me at the fine dining restaurant Old Manila. Having spotted familiar personages from the mining industry outside the glass doors, she concludes, "It's back.”
If we are to follow the textile magnate's cue, seeing the Pen lobby crowd as economic indicator, we might have reason to declare the tita peso is strong, too. The entire Forbes-Dasma-SanLo contingent of women has turned up, exchanging besos before (or after) burning some cash at The Gallery, the hotel's usually inaccessible third floor veranda, where the weekend bazaar MaArte Fair is holding court. "I just saw the entire Zobel clan come in,” Lim Forbes adds, interrupting her train of thought after espying Sofia and a gaggle of girls walk toward the hotel lift.
Ah, the Pen lobby. You can tell the state of society just by looking at it: the changing tastes and protocols, who's seeing who and who's making them jealous. Remember Coco Martin throwing a punch at Matteo Guidicelli because of Maja Salvador at the 2011 Star Magic ball? How about Jeremy Renner's brief stay at the hotel, causing orders of coffee to shoot up, owing to Renner fans staging their personal vigils by the lobby?
People watch people here, even if you think they're only around for the halo-halo or arroz caldo. If you don't want to be seen; you can opt for the hotel's secret back entrance—if you’re VIP enough. Many landmark deals have been sealed here, weddings planned, and coups plotted around its marble tabletops. “This is a place to see and be seen," says Mila Magsaysay Valenzuela, or Mrs. V, daughter of a former Philippine president. She is also the hotel's first PR director.
"If there's one word I could use to describe the lobby, it’s ‘magical,’” says Rosary Ysmael who worked under Mrs. V for many years as PR manager. “The minute you come in, you already feel the magic. You're elevated!"
It's certainly one of the city's most pleasurable settings to look at, with its classical interiors, dramatic staircase, the way the light enters through its glass windows, bathing the marble walls and floors with a kind of beatific glow. "It is architecturally perfect," says Lim Forbes, who is the daughter of the late Patricio Luis "PL" Lim, half of the visionary duo that built the hotel—the other half being the industrialist Charlie Palanca. "It has that architectural integrity—you built a space without columns in the center? It has never been done!"
Then there is the sunburst sculpture by National Artist Napoleon Abueva hanging from the ceiling, watching over the immense hotel lobby—perhaps the biggest in Asia—the potted palm trees elegantly towering above the day’s multitude. On a good day, you can spot a maya perched on one of the high window ledges, or tiptoeing on the lobby carpet.
But the Pen lobby did not start out this way.
Grand central station
When the hotel opened in 1976—around the time its now-gone neighbors the Intercon, the Mandarin, and the Manila Garden began operations—to serve the foreign delegates coming over for the IMF conference (14 hotels opened that year for the same reason), not everyone was pleased with how the lobby looked.
The hotel was meant to echo the design and appeal of the lobby of the Peninsula in Hong Kong, Ysmael recalls, but it seemed to have taken a different direction. “Everybody called it the Grand Central Station. It was massive. It was so high, so bare, there was a lot of marble,” says Ysmael. “Then we had those brown chandeliers! They call it the Egyptian tomb [an upturned one, because of its shape]. Very dark color. The furniture was green. It really looked dark and without character.”
But since it had just been built, a renovation was out of the question. What it needed, as the ladies of the PR department smartly decided, was a marketing and press relations intervention. Taking the cue from its HK counterpart, Manila borrowed the mothership hotel’s tagline, “See you at the Pen.” The words would appear in blue and silver bumper stickers around the city. Valenzuela and company facilitated the publication of articles in newspapers. “The vision was that the lobby was going to be the place to meet, [where people go] to see and be seen," Valenzuela recalls.
The strategy worked. The beautiful people started coming in, bringing life to the dreary surroundings. The first party to ever be held in the space was the 50th birthday celebration of Enrique Zobel, the esteemed businessman and polo player. Attended by everyone who mattered in Manila society, it was the only time the lobby was allowed to close for an occasion—with the party area cordoned off with stretches of sampaguita.
The Pen's early years were the Marcos years, and First Lady Imelda would arrive with her bus full of Blue Ladies. They would almost always proceed to the supper club Quimbaya and make their way to the lobby after, with Madam ordering another round of her drink of choice: a harmless calamansi soda.
Even moviefolk favored the place. Armida Siguion-Reyna used to hold court at the lobby every Wednesday. Richard Gomez was a regular. The actress Chanda Romero once told me she used to hang out here with the director Mike de Leon and a few friends. Romero would recite monologues from her younger days in Cebu, which would inspire de Leon to incorporate them as part of the actress' character Jenny Estrada, a call girl, in Batch '81.
Through the years, the lobby has become the preferred venue for post-awards celebration. “Ate Vi," HR manager Noel Silva says, referring to Vilma Santos, "every time she wins best actress, whether ifs MMFF or FAMAS, would even call—well, not her personally but her assistant—would alert us that her group will be coming.” And so a number of the square tables would be pulled together in anticipation of the party's arrival.
Groups would meet there regularly, for years, earning the tag, “The Lobbyists.” Like this team of Swiss nationals, among them the jeweler Hans Brumann. They had luncheon sessions every Thursday. “There was this guy, the one with the fake MMDA ID—his son grew up here in the lobby," offers Silva, unwilling to divulge names. “He would bring his son here every day. From school, he picks him up, brings him here, in his school uniform—for years!"
"Until he became a binatilyo [and he stopped going)], continues Ysmael. “Siguro nahiya na siya dito mag-homework."
"If you pinpoint an age and you live here in Makati, everybody has a memory of this hotel. You came here for your Christening, you came here for your birthday, there were very few choices to go to at that time,” says Lim Forbes, who used to join her father when he did the rounds of the hotel premises. “This was my living room!" she says of the Pen lobby.
The National Artist Federico Aguilar Alcuaz, who famously lived at the Manila Pavilion from 1968 to 2011, the year he passed on, would come late at night with his small keyboard and play the instrument from his chosen table, never mind that the Las Gitaras, or the Peninsula Strings, were in the middle of their set at the mezzanine. "We would always tell him to stop if guests complain," recalls Ysmael. If no one complained, the staff let the painter do as he wished, as long as the volume was kept to a minimum.
One of the sayings that came to be during the early years of the Pen sprung from a group of writer-journalists who frequented the lobby’s Makati wing—the preferred side of the nation's politicos. This group included Joe Guevarra, Max Soliven, Zacarias Nuguid, Ike Joaquin, sometimes even Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, and Doroy Valencia, whose daughter was the in-house newsstand concessionaire. “I think it was Joe Guevarra who wrote it,” Celia recounts. “If you've made it, you stay on the right side, the Makati wing. If you're on the left side, the Ayala side, you're still trying hard to get there.”
Over the decades, the establishment has encountered all sorts of personalities: a stingy Argentinian, a regular customer, who insisted on being served by one specific waiter and that waiter alone; the illegitimate son of a mayor who pointed a gun at front desk officer Silva after the latter asked him for a deposit.
In December 1996, a fight involving some of the country’s esteemed opinion makers would be the subject of many an op-ed column for months. “They had come from the launching of the Heritage Library across the street, and they were all enjoying themselves: Teddy Boy [Locsin], Joker Arroyo, Conrad de Quiros, Adrian Cristobal, the bigwigs!" recalls Ysmael. The power group was having a few laughs, unmindful of their surroundings. An American guest of imposing build stood up from a table across them clutching his can of Diet Coke. The man approached the dyaristas and, after slamming the soft drink can on their table, blurted out, “What’s so funny, wiseguys?”
A fistfight ensued.
“I don’t know who started it,” Ysmael offers, running the scene in her mind and looking short of breath. “All of a sudden, Peter Schori, then F&B director, a big guy with a Saddam Hussein moustache, sees the brawl, saw this guy under the table, on the floor, and tried to stop the fight.”
“How dare you! Don't you know who I am?" the American asked Schori, panting.
"No. I don't know who you are,” said Schori.
Depending on who you ask, the American either fled the scene after the encounter, or the F&B director made sure he was safely tucked into a taxi—conscious of the fact the guy was still a hotel guest and deserved nothing but proper treatment. “Before you knew it, [police] picked up Mr. Schori and brought him to the Makati presinto,” continues Ysmael, who would follow Schori along with another F&B staffer. When the two arrived at the precinct, media was already on site.
“The press lambasted us for months,” recalls Magsaysay, who boasts a thick compilation of everything that was written about the incident. "Anyone who could wield a pen ganged up on the Pen,” says current PR director Mariano Garchitorena.
“They said we were favoring the puti," Ysmael recalls. "Teddy Boy was so angry. They said, ‘Why didn't [the hotel staff] even get his name?!'”
“Araw-araw nasa dyaryo kami,” says Silva. It was a PR nightmare. Some of the writeups were "totally insulting!” he recalls. “But so well written, so witty, so funny!"
"Sorry, Schori, you must go,” a headline in Max Soliven’s Philippine Star went, accompanied by a caricature of the F&B chief that made him resemble the then Iraqi president.
“The guy was intimidated," recalls Valenzuela, referring to Schori. “He got threatening letters. He had a son in British school, and one day [Schori] just disappeared.” Then Makati legislator Joker Arroyo demanded Schori be deported. The Swiss national would eventually turn up in Hong Kong as manager for a private club.
The nasty write-ups, in time, would come to a halt. “The late Art Borjal, sabi niya sa akin, 'You cannot win. That's media. Just let it quiet down and fade,” recalls Valenzuela. “And it did. But we really got a lot of flak there."
No other hotel lobby would be witness to the country's political upheavals the way the Pen lobby did. It’s impossible to tell the history of the hotel itself without mentioning the two coup attempts that took over the establishment for two brief periods in the last two decades: the first one was in 1989, staged by the Reformed Armed Forces (RAM), the second one was the Antonio Trillanes-led mutiny in 2007. Recalling the events, Lim Forbes appears to have not, until now, fathomed the very reason the Pen had to be the preferred setting for these events. “What is it about the Pen that equates it to the seat of power?"
In '89, during the Cory Aquino administration, the hotel's then general manager Nicklaus Leunberger got a call from one of the RAM members telling him to empty the lobby of diners and that guests should be sent to their rooms. The only ones ordered to stay were Leunberger himself and Director of Customer Service Montserrat "Monzie" Uy, who immediately called her friend from the military and asked for intervention. "Please do something. I'm gonna die here!" she remembers saying on the phone, amused now at the memory. “I'll give them all the food they want, anything they want, just don't make them come!"
But the rebels showed up and the hotel staff and guests would be holed up in the hotel for the next five days. There were tanks around Makati and snipers positioned in buildings. Old Manila and Chesa became sleeping quarters. The lobby was a mess. Everyone was told to keep away from the windows or they would be shot. “Anything that moved, we will shoot,” went the warning.
True enough, a guest who dared part the blackout curtains was shot—but she survived. During one inspection, Silva spotted a girl sobbing in a corner. "'Yun pala anghelita dela noche [lady of the night).” She was crying because she was stuck inside and because the hotel guest who had sought her services only booked her for one evening, not the four other days she’s been in the building. “Lost revenue,” Silva adds, amused at the memory.
During that tense period, Uy and Silva would pray the rosary each night, with Uy intermittently dozing off from lack of sleep. The staff went on with their normal duties despite the unusual situation—serving food, looking out for guests. They even “ransacked” the hotel newsstand for people who had run out of cigarettes. Hence, when the government sent buses and the hotel guests were finally allowed to evacuate, the guests refused to leave. “They said, 'No, we leave with the staff,’” Silva recalls, clearly proud of the memory.
It was decided that for every two guests, a hotel staff could be freed from the premises. “There were 650 guests and 250 employees,” remembers Valenzuela. "It happened on a weekend so we had a skeletal staff. We made it to the international news because of the way it was handled by the hotel." The guests were so grateful to the hotel personnel they initiated a passing of the hat around the lobby. Years after, Valenzuela says some of those guests had returned to the hotel purely for sentimental reasons.
The Pen would make it to international news again in November 2007, this time on the front page of The New York Times. Then Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, among others, walked out of their hearing for the 2003 Oakwood Mutiny at the Makati Regional Trial Court and marched to the Peninsula—in a bid to oust then Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
Valenzuela, who had already retired from her PR tenure, would find out about the takeover through a call from then Inquirer editor-in-chief Letty Jimenez Magsanoc. “Hoy, may nangyayari sa hotel mo," Valenzuela remembers the journalist saying. "So I called [the hotel] to talk to the PR.” That day, many of the hotel staff were in Tagaytay for a team-building seminar.
"What's happening?" Mrs. V asked PR director Mariano Garchitorena on the other line.
"They're here in the lobby.”
"Do they have guns?"
"What do they want?"
"A function room."
“Get them a function room and get them out of the lobby," Valenzuela recalls saying.
The soldiers were given the Rizal function room, and soon they would take hold of the hotel's second floor. The Philippine military would send their batallions to crush the mutiny. Armored vehicles would appear outside the hotel, with a host of Philippine marines behind them. A quick gunfire exchange would take place and before dusk had settled, it was over, with Trillanes and Brigadier General Danilo Lim surrendering to arresting officers, and the rest of the mutineers exiting the premises by 5.30 pm.
“They [mutineers] did not raid the bar, they did not take any silver. They were very courteous,” Valenzuela recalls being told. Days later, it was business as usual for the hotel, the lobby bright and pleasant as if nothing had happened.
Pen and politics
More than two decades before, the Peninsula had also been caught in the nation’s political fervor, though not in the same terrifying circumstances that involved tanks and high power rifles. In the few years before the Marcoses were kicked out by People Power, the country was in a political tempest. There was a small event in the lobby that would paint a picture of how politically divided people were at that time. Doroy Valencia, the newspaperman very much associated with the Marcoses, was a lobby regular. On one occasion, however, as he walked in to hold court at one of the tables, he would feel very unwelcome.
“I don't know what event that was. He came in with his friends, and everybody looked at him. And I don't know who the culprit was but Efren Martin [one of the mezzanine musicians who played strings] was playing upstairs and somebody went up there and asked him to play the song, ‘(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window," the Patti Page ditty. It was an obvious move to taunt Valencia. A crowd would soon surround the newspaperman until someone plucked him out of the scene and brought him to the Pen's buffet restaurant La Bodega. “l think he was most embarrassed,” recalls Valenzuela.
Perhaps reeling from the stress that playing "The Doggie Song" created, Martin, the musician, decided to play the classic “Dahil Sa lyo” by Mike Velarde, famously the favorite song of Imelda Marcos. Suddenly, there was clanging of glasses and utensils from the lobby tables. The noise got so loud that Valenzuela had no choice but to intervene. “Please stop that!" Mrs. V admonished the band, her voice halting the noise. "Aren't we living in a democracy?'”
For years, the mezzanine musicians would still play Imelda's signature song on occasion, and it usually meant Madame has arrived in the building. “It still amazes me that the musicians automatically play her song when she walks in the lobby,” says Lim Forbes. Not that it’s a hotel directive. “They can feel it. I will turn around and she's there.”
She was a fan of the hotel, Mrs. Marcos. She would bring the tall and elegant American pianist Van Cliburn to the Peninsula and introduce him to Valenzuela. The day Ninoy Aquino was assassinated, she was in Chesa, one of the old hotel restaurants, the ex PR offers. Valenzuela vividly remembers, on one occasion, the First Lady telling her, "Mila, I like your hotel because with one sweep of the eyes, you can see everybody." And Mrs. V. thought, perhaps fully aware of Mrs. Marcos’ relationship with attention, “And everybody sees you, too.”
[Photographs courtesy of the Peninsula Manila]