Let’s Take A Peek Inside The Historic Syquia Apartments

We revisit an old Real Living article about the famous 1930s apartments in Malate that teem with artists and assorted creatives

Photography: Bahaghari & Rene Mejia (Main Photos) Pictorial Direction: Gwyn Guanzon

“Why don’t you feature the whole building?” Kim Atienza says after we’ve taken our final Polaroid. We are in the Manila councilor’s (and now-media personality’s) North Syquia flat, photographing his art collection for our second issue. “A lot of interesting people live here.”


Having said that, he takes us for a bumpy elevator ride to visit other tenants of the six-storey, 24-unit apartment building on M.H. del Pilar Street. As the building caretaker closes shut the clunky accordion bars, Kim remarks, “This elevator is like the old ones in the Meat-Packing district of New York.” Long-time resident Apa Ongpin would later say that the Sy-quias were “tremendous mechanical engineers.” After installing the Otis in one property, they began building their own machines patterned after it.

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A couple more knocks on neighbors’ doors and some forwarded cell phone numbers later, and we have a list of tenants willing to tell us about life in North Syquia: Bonjin Bolinao, keeper of a rare Manansala and other priceless paintings; Chiqui Mabanta, the building owner’s daughter; Knut Netz, the expat whose home makes you heady with its primitive vibe; Apa Ongpin, self-confessed junk collector and source of Syquia trivia; and Cita Astals, actress-turned-city councilor.


Add photographer Neil Oshima, painter Phyllis Zaballero, and director Butch Perez to the tenant roll call and it begins to sound like Manila’s bohemian headquarters.

An oral history of Syquia

When it opened in the 1930s, North Syquia targeted the business traveler. Pato Sy-quia, who manages South Syquia Apartments a few meters down the street, says, “The buildings were catering to long-term transients. Everything then came by sea. If you went on a business trip, you had to stay for a month.” He remembers a time when some units came furnished, as serviced residences do today.


The building is old enough to be part of our colonial history. At the turn of the century, Pato’s grandfather owned a piece of property in Tutuban so large that it had its own paddock, which the Americans expropriated to build the Tutuban Railway Station. After winning a court battle to get the fair price, the Sy-quias used the money from the sale to build three apartments along M.H. del Pilar. First came South Syquia, followed by North Syquia, and finally the 10-storey Michel Apartments, named after Pato’s grandmother, Asuncion Michel, who came up with the idea of investing the cash in units for rent.


Tallest building, prime residences

Pato says that until the ‘50s, Michel was the tallest building in the city. He also remembers a time when Syquia bedrooms opened out to a terrace overlooking Manila Bay. With high ceilings and generous floor space (100sqm in South and 150sqm in North) meant for one person, the apartments certainly must have been prime residences in their heyday. In fact, during the Japanese Occupation, while the generals booked themselves into Manila Hotel, second-tier Japanese officials evicted residents and moved in.


It practically survived World War II

When Malate Church held an exhibit in 2002, Pato recalls seeing a wartime photo of the three Syquia buildings standing intact amidst a horizon of rubble. Give credit to Sears Roebuck cement that cost one cent a bag. “They tried to destroy the building during Liberation, but it’s like a bunker,” says Pato. “My father kind of overbuilt; the whole thing is poured cement, not hollow blocks.”


“I’m sure that when it was new, you could go out at nine in the morning and see no one on the street,” says tenant Apa Ongpin. “It would just have been empty in 1937 or ’38. Now, there are people here 24 hours a day, all over the street. It’s a different world.”


But will it survive Manila?

The building shows its age, blending with the rundown feel you get from old structures all over Manila. Step out and be confronted with an Anito Lodge across the street. Walk more steps and you’ll end up in the bars, clubs, and restaurants of Nakpil, Adriatico, and Remedios Circle. All day is heard the roar of jeepneys sans mufflers. “Syquia is right after the intersection, so the jeepneys coming up M. H. del Pilar are accelerating when they pass,” says Apa.


New guard

Still, a new crowd has found a home in Syquia, gentrified in its own way. “A whole bunch of people who knew each other moved in,” Apa says of the early ‘90s, naming Butch Perez and Neil Oshima among the earlier arrivals. BenCab moved out, but moving into his unit are Markus Schmidt and Richard Danao, owners of restaurants and a home shop in Nakpil and Orosa.


“Syquia has a certain lifestyle that attracts a certain kind of personality,” says Apa. “It’s really living in the city, not in a gated, enclave community.” This, he says, is the “real world.”

Even without the stray cats that you’ll find loitering in the fire escapes and hallways, it’s certainly very colorful environs. “There were more couturier boutiques and hair salons per square meter,” notes John Silva in the book Malate, illustrating how in the ‘60s the area already had a thriving gay culture. In the ‘80s, Malate was the site of numerous girlie bars. Says Pato, “if you look at what used to be the bohemian quarters in various European cities, you’ll find that they were right next to the red-light districts.”


Post-Alfredo Lim, Malate is a more sterile area. Still, the most interesting clubs and restaurants in the metropolis are opened here. One of the reasons is that it’s not financial suicide to experiment with a new concept; overhead is simply too high in Makati. “It’s really urban decay, but there are opportunities here,” says Apa. “Malate is all about possibility.”


Some readers mentioned that the most memorable Real Living story that they have read was “Inside an Old Building,” published in RL's November-December 2003 issue, from where this article was excerpted from. As part of our celebration of Real Living's 15th Anniversary, we will be publishing select articles that have molded RL through the years. 

UPDATE: Fifteen years later, South Syquia has since been vacated, and many of the habitués have moved out of North, but replaced by a new wave of creatives. Manila has changed hands once again and has fallen into further decay, and North Syquia has a new, modern elevator, although the old one still runs.

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