Manila Lost and alone in a giant Asian city, wandering inside a dimly lit parking lot, is not how most would choose to spend a Thursday night.  But I am here by choice, lured by the kind of invitation I find irresistible: “Kain Tayo!”  – helpfully subtitled in English, “Come Eat with Us!” It’s the battle cry of Pinoy Eats World, a collective of in-the-know locals united by their love of Philippine food culture.  The group hosts food tours at home and overseas from Hong Kong to Turkey; themed evening that pair cuisine with art (their official, irreverent name:”{f}art” dinners); and so called guerilla dinners free from, creative culinary adventures that take place in secret locations around the capital.

I have signed up for one of the latter, and have been told to meet outside a Franciscan chapel in Makati, from which 20 odd strangers and I will travel to a multi-course feast prepared by chefs J.J. Yulo and Namee Jorolan, both of whom boast solid culinary credentials – Jorolan’s background includes a stint at Chez Panisse in California.  With the help of the collective’s directions transmitted by rapid fire SMS.  I finally find the group, and together we make our way by private car to the expansive poolside patio of a family house in Forbes Park.

Sitting down at one of four round tables, I meet my fellow diners, each of whom embodies Manila’s dynamic creative class: a Pratt Institute trained graphic designer, a magazine editor transplanted from New York, a successful local screenwriter, an architect who moonlights as a jewellery designer.  The food that follows lives up to the company.  Each course is evocatively named, without giving too much away; “Redford White” comprises succulent corned beef in a savoury, flavourful broth whose colour profile is enshrined in the name of the beloved Fillipino comedian; “Porky Pops” is melt in your mouth Cebu lechon, with sikin so crisp it snaps with a crackle.  And, because the feast is in honour of Christmas, all proceeds go to charity.

But that’s not all.  All Early in the meal, a dozen or so seemingly random dinners rise up one by one and begin to sing carols.  It turns out that a singing group, Hangad, has been planted among the guests, and as the evening progresses even the members of the host family join in, until finally the whole patio erupts into a joyful, impromptu, pitch perfect rendition of “Seasons of Love” from the musical Rent.  Everyone at the dinner knows the lyrics.  In all, it’s an unforgettable night of food, community, music, celebration; an experience that couldn’t be more Pinoy.

manila city philippinesIf this is the first time you’ve heard of Pinoy Eats World, it may come as a surprise that Manila is a haven for the creatively inclined.  On any given weekend, you’ll find a host of unexpected offering: open-mic session; poetry readings; art house movie screenings; indie-music battles; live performances by graffiti artists; and quiz nights to gratify the most perfervid of pop-culture fiends.

But while the capital is booming with fresh ideas, it’s the litany of stale complaints that still makes it to the outside world: poverty, pollution, traffic, corruption.  It doesn’t help that the Philippines” Department of Tourism has long struggled to brand the country for tourism purposes botched past efforts include Pilipinas Kay Ganda (“Beautiful Philippines”), a closed-circuit campaign that failed to reach anyone beyond the Filipino community.

Cool, cosmopolitan, inspiring – these adjectives all apply to the Philippines as seen through the lens of the initiated.  And though none of those adjectives are part of the country’s latest slogan, “IT’S MORE FUN IN THE PHILIPPINES,” it does leave room for creative interpretation.  Take the delightfully witty online riff, “CHASING TAIL: MORE FUN IN THE PHILIPPINES,” featuring a picture of a scuba diver swimming alongside a whale shark.

Until recently, shopping in Manila was synonymous with strip malls, the Shoemart-let trend of mercantile efficiency that, for better or worse, revolutionized the Philippines’ retail sector: No longer: to glimpse its most contemporary incarnation today, head straight to The Collective, the focal point for the capital’s creative moment.

If Manila’s malls are the air conditioned opiate of the masses.  The Collective is the stimulant of choice for the quirky, the offbeat, the self declaredly individual.  Converted from a defunct Makati car warehouse, it plays host to a swathe of creative entrepreneurs who occupy its low rent spaces and share a central atrium.  I walk around and take in the universal signs of hipster culture.  A fixie bike is parked outside Wabi-Sabi, a noodle house and vegetarian grocery that serves banh-mi and shoyu ramen with veggie crackling.  A purple neon arrow points to a slickly graffiti filled corridor that leads to Vinyl on Vinyl, a shop selling street art and vinyl toys. Ritual, a minimalist general store, purveys locally sourced personal and home products as well as unbleached cotton shirts and bags.  B-side, a funky nightspot, hosts international acts like London’s electronic-blip-heavy Gold Panda as well as hip-hop nights and, for those who love dreadlocks, a weekly reggae and dub-themed Sunday afternoon barbecue.

Manila RestaurantI stop in to see Clara Balaguer, founder of the Office of Culture & Design, a platform for art and design projects that come with a social dimension.  The “office” is in fact an airy gallery space turned work studio decked out with mismatched vintage furniture sourced from Manila’s Evangelista Street.  “The name comes from a joke,” she says. “We have no department or ministry of culture, no grant-giving body catering to the cultural needs of the country.  The creative sector is very small, so it’s up to the private sector to do what they can.”

Born in Manila to Spanish and Filipino parents, and with an advertising background honed in Barcelona, Balaguer flits effortlessly between Tagalog.  English and Spanish, and embodies the cosmopolitanism of a new generation.  “I am forging an international cooperation between different cultures and the Philippines,” she says.  “The idea is to bring people here.  It’s more normal for us to go abroad, to the U.S., to Europe, and to work there.  It’s time we started bringing people back here.  Let’s turn it around.”

The projects spa artist residencies that benefit local children and events whose proceeds go towards funding social enterprises.  In particular, Balaguer uses her international connections to forge cross-cultural exchange.  “The Philippines is a question mark.  Nobody knows anything about it.  But it works for me.  Foreign artists are looking for an exotic experience, an outside input.”

Next door is U26, the sleek mezzanine studio of three young architects who are making a name for themselves with ultra modern projects that draw from traditional Filipino roots.  The office of post production studio Post Manila, for instance, is modern with bold graphics and vibrant splashes of colour, but has rooms inspired by old Manila streets.  There’s also Ninoy Aquino Memorial Park, a project set to commemorate the 1986 EDSA Revolution with a sculptural tree whose branches end in letters of correspondence instead of leaves, “because so many people have had the experience of someone who’s gone away,” says Stephanie Sy, U26’s interior designer.

Manila FoodsSy, who grew up in nearby Hong Kong and then studied and worked in North America before moving to Manila, embraces all the creative possibilities that the Philippine capital now affords. “Because this is a developing country, people aren’t limited in terms of the way they think,” she explains.  “In Hong Kong everyone wants what they see in magazines – it’s a status thing.  Here people are more open to creativity, and the sorts of clients we get want to push us to do more, not to imitate what someone else already has.  They really want to do something modern and different.”

Are you consuming culture, or is culture consuming you?  ask Poklong Anading as PabloGallery in Cubao X, a shoe expo turned arts oriented enclave in the depths of Quezon City. Today, you can find Mid-century furniture, vintage curio emporiums, designer furniture stores and edgy repurposed fashion sitting side by side with ancient looking barber shops and discount shoes outlets.  All together, it stands as the prototype for The Collective.

Anading, a conceptual artist who trained under Roberto Chabet at the University of the Philippines, is helping to paint the wall white, preparing for a new exhibition with long, sure strokes of a brush.  His work draws from the city around him a recent project featured Manila’s ubiquitous, multicoloured round cleaning rags fashioned into sculptural, abstract installations that twist upwards from the floor or hang suspended from a wall.

“History, art history, is all about recycling, taking what already exists and putting it back together,” he says.  “In history we were exploited, colonized.  This is what’s been done to us.  But repackaging makes us question what’s ours.  Its stops the greed and makes us think.”

Critical thought is definitely at the heart of the Department of Avant Garde Cliches, a gallery run by artist Manuel Ocampo. Almost hidden to casual passerby a deliberately ragged vinyl sign points to the gallery’s entrance behind a row of industrial buildings the high ceilinged space showcases mechanically reproducible works, everything from prints to discs to stencils, lending the works a democratic, affordable dimension while at the same time challenging the notions of both authenticity and uniqueness.

“One way of eradicating clichés is through the arts,” says gallery manager Arvin Flores, a Manila born painter who studied and taught in the U.S. before returning to the city last year.  “Art is not just a commodity. It’s cultural effect.  It’s not just about goods; its communication, it’s language, and because it encapsulates local culture it becomes about empowerment.”

Isabelo Garden Restaurant MarikinaFlores cautions that the local art scene is still young, and local artists need to be aware of their relationship to the marketplace.  “With the international influence, and galleries coming here, let’s make sure we’re creating the products we want and not just feeding the market,”  he says. “You have to dictate the market also.  Let’s say a curator from abroad comes here; can we also send a Filipino curator overseas? It has to be equitable.  Unfortunately there’s a disparity of economic power.  Until everything is the same, it’s very hard to negotiate.”

Over in Intramuros, Manila’s walled historic centre and the seat of Spanish power during that colonial period, disparities are being bridged by unconventional means.  An exhibition.  TBC Manila, is on show in the atmospheric white-washed Plaza San Luis, curated by artist turned curator Anton Lopez.  Featuring seven young, up and coming artists from around the world, the exhibition draws directly from the immediate environment: found ceramics painted with geometric patterns by Brooklyn based Julia Chiang; a room filled with striking blown up pictures of street children in suits and yellow tinted shades by Japan based Korean-American artist Suitman, aka Young Kin; a giant, painterly sculpture pieced together with wooden debris from nearby, by Lopez himself.

“I wanted this show to be informal,” says Lopez, who trained as an artist but worked for Diesel in Italy and Nike in Hong Kong before moving to the Philippines to be closer to his parents.  “Usually there’s a lot of separation between art and the everyday life.  I wanted to bring the outside in.  The reaction was automatic.  It happened organically.

“The idea was to bring in the great artists I know, and show them what Manila is,” Lopez tells me. “I knew if they came here, they’d talk about it.  They flew in from Tokyo, Hong Kong and New York, and they loved it. And everything that we wanted to happen happened.”

Historically, Intramuros has leaned dangerously close to stagnation in a logjam of bureaucracy.  So the exhibition comes as a happy surprise, and Lopez has been working with the Intramuros Administration to stage further exhibitions through the rest of this year.  What’s more, a stone’s throw away is a sign of further positive change: the opening of the Bayleaf Intramuros, a design oriented hotel within Intramuros’ walls.

I finish up my trip with a visit to Van Gogh is Bipolar, a restaurant as eccentric and artfully delicious as its name.  It’s also difficult to get to, buried deep within Quezon City.  I end up woefully miscalculating my travel time, and thanks to Friday night traffic, I end up arriving 90 minutes late for my reservation.

Thankfully, the charismatic owner, Jetro Rafel, is a charming placating host, wearing a Van Gogh is Bipolar T-shirt and sporting a helmet with two feathers in it.  He looks like a cross between an angel and Asterix.  He also has just the ticket to soothe me frayed nerves: the menu has designed to help him manage a condition he was born with, a debilitating bipolar disorder.  Doctors tired antidepressants, and Rafeal read as much as he could about his condition.  Now, he manages it completely through his lifestyle and what he eats.  His restaurant, he tells me, “is my sanctuary.”

Everything from my drink to the main course to the environment is decidedly soothing, and I am glad I braved the traffic to come.  Before I leave, Rafael pulls me to one side.  “There’s no good or bad, there’s only experience,” he says, smiling serenely, I can’t help but apply his wisdom to Manila.  “I accept the good with the bad.  For me, it’s all good.”