The showman of Manila

In a top hat and “barong Tagalog,” Carlos Celdran entertains, and sometimes offends, tourists to the Philippines.

By Carlos H. Conde
Published: March 19, 2009 20:39 ET

MANILA — Carlos Celdran has been called “Manila’s pied piper.” But a more apt description might be a clown with a sledgehammer, who smashes long-held notions about Philippine history and culture.

As the city’s most popular guide, he can often be found leading a pack of 30-odd tourists, many of them westerners, on his weekly tours of the city’s cultural and historical sites.

In addition to drawing on his background in visual and performing arts — Celdran conducts his tours wearing a top hat and “barong Tagalog” (the national shirt for Filipino men), and waving a miniature American flag — he injects his tours with a liberal political bent that is both irreverent and entertaining.

For example, at a recent tour of Intramuros — the “walled city” in Manila where Spaniards protected themselves against a mob of Muslims in the 16th century — Celdran wowed his mostly Caucasian audience with politically charged references, all delivered in his vaudevillian style. He described the Roman Catholic leadership in the Philippines during that period as “Catholic Talibans” running a “theocracy” that suppressed Filipinos’ desire for independence.

And inside the San Agustin Church — considered the mother of Philippine colonial churches — Celdran herded his audience into a chamber filled with tombs of Filipinos who died in World War II. He launched into a tirade against World War II U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, blaming him for destroying Manila (here he showed a photograph of a bomb from a U.S. plane) in an attempt to get rid of the Japanese.

Celdran also ridiculed MacArthur as a showman, alleging that when MacArthur landed on the shores of Leyte, he re-staged the event so a Life magazine photographer could perfectly capture the moment he waded into the water.

“He was a better actor than a general,” Celdran, pipe in hand, boomed, eliciting a faint but firm snicker from one of the elderly Americans in the group.

In a way, Celdran knows whereof he speaks. A pudgy 36-year-old of Spanish, American and Chinese descent, Celdran studied fine arts at the University of the Philippines and graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design before shifting to performing arts. He interned with New York City’s Blue Man Group and later formed a performing arts group in Manila.

He put his interest in Philippine culture and history to use by joining Manila’s Heritage Conservation Society, where he was a volunteer tour guide. “I would wear no costume, and people would get bored halfway through my spiel,” he once told a writer. So Celdran decided to branch out on his own.

His success is well known: In 2007, he was recognized as one of Manila’s “Most Inspiring Entrepreneurs” by the Philippine Center for Entrepreneurship.

Celdran relies heavily on costumes and props, and draws on his theatrical background. He wears a headset connected to the portable speaker dangling from his waist, and has a small music player, which he uses to play Filipino folk songs and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” To heighten the tension about a tale of Filipinos killed in World War II, he snaps his fingers rhythmically; at another point, he slams shut a book of old pictures so hard that his audience is startled.

Today, his walking tours are by appointment only (he’s strict about confirmations), and they’re limited to 30 tourists. His business grows through word of mouth and on the Internet, despite the rather steep price tag: about 1,000 pesos per person (roughly $20).

In addition to his tour of Intramuros, Celdran offers tours of Manila’s Chinatown and an overnight tour of Corregidor, the island off Manila Bay that the Americans and Filipino used to defend the country from the Japanese during World War II. Growing in popularity is his “Living La Vida Imelda!” tour, which takes visitors to the cultural sites that former first lady Imelda Marcos built in the 1970s and 1980s (this tour involves 1970s attire). “It is infused with disco music, gossip, geo-politics of the Cold War and everything you did not need to know about Imelda,” he said.

Despite the politics that creep into his tours, Celdran pooh-poohs the notion that some might get offended or turned off. “It’s all song and dance,” he whispered as he sashayed down the cobblestones of Intramuros. “Don’t take it seriously.”

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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