Justin Bieber: big in Manila. Photo: Getty.
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The authorities keep trying to ban celebrities from Manila

Why is the Filipino capital so sensitive?

Brokedown Palace is a 1998 film about a pair of friends incarcerated after accidentally smuggling heroin out of Thailand. Claire Danes plays Alice; Kate Beckinsale plays Darlene; and, for the purposes of filming, Philippine capital Manila plays Bangkok. What could be more flattering to a city than forming the backdrop to a drama set in a Thai prison?

To compound the insult, on her return to the states, Danes gave several less-than-complimentary interviews about Manila.  “It just f***ing smelled like cockroaches,” she told Premiere magazine:

 There’s no sewage system. [We saw] people with like, no arms, no legs, no eyes, no teeth... Rats were everywhere.”

In an separate interview, with Vogue, she called the city “ghastly and weird”.

Manila was understandably pissed off. The city council passed a motion, 23 to 3, to ban the actress from the city and prevent her films playing in its movie theatres until she made a public apology. They were supported by the country’s president Joseph Estrada, who said: “She should not be allowed to come here.”

Danes, presumably on the advice of her PR team, swiftly issued an apology, explaining that, “Because of the subject matter of our film... the cast was exposed to the darker and more impoverished places”. But this wasn’t enough for Kim Atienza, the city councillor-cum-TV weatherman who’d originally proposed the ban. He branded the actress’ comments “an excuse... and not a genuine apology”, adding: “We will lift the ban only if we are satisfied.”

As far as we can tell, that ban is still in place. Claire Danes remains barred from entering Manilla.

As an isolated incident, this is bizarre enough. But a celebrity contriving to offend the Philippines, and in particular its capital city, is a surprisingly common occurrence.

In 1966, when the Beatles visited the country to perform two concerts in Manila, the band missed an appointment to meet the first lady, Imelda Marcos. The Manila Times ran a front-page story on the “snub”, with a later headline delightfully proclaiming, “Imelda stood up: first family waits in vain for mopheads”. The band soon found themselves served with an enormous tax bill, elevators stopped working on their approach, the hotel refused room service, and they were attacked by locals on their way to their flight out.

Further furore broke out in 2012, when Justin Bieber posted Instagram pictures mocking Manny Pacquiao, Filipino congressman and boxer, for getting knocked out in a fight. One picture showed the boxer prostrate alongside  by  Simba from The Lion King, with the caption “Dad wake up”. Carol Jayne Lopez, a member of the Philippines’ House of Representatives, responded by urging Congress to ban the singer from the country and instructed the country’s youth to boycott Bieber’s album.

Most recently, the protagonist of Dan Brown’s 2013 novel Inferno described Manila as “the gates of hell”, enraging officials and citizens alike.  Francis Tolentino, a member of the president’s cabinet, wrote Brown a letter – also distributed to the press, of course – saying he’d got it all wrong: Manila would be more accurately described as an “entry to heaven”. 

The Filipinos are not alone in taking offence at the words of passing celebrities (Brad Pitt was banned from China for starring in the Party-critical Seven Years in Tibet). But what makes Manila’s rage so singular is that it comes from the streets as well as the government: members of the public enthusiastically refused to serve the Beatles, while outrage over Dan Brown’s portrayal of the city was largely played out over social media.

The city’s sensitivity may be rooted in its history. Manila has been handed round like a church collection plate since the 16th century, when it was invaded and occupied by Spain. Great Britain occupied it from 1762 to 1764; the US took control after bringing down the First Philippine Republic in 1901. Japan had a go during WW2, occupying the Philippines from 1942 after heavily bombing Manila. The US recaptured the city in 1945, which was nice, but in the process 100,000 were killed and the city was largely destroyed.

It’s stayed free of foreign occupation since the war. But National Disaster Consciousness month, “celebrated” every July, serves as a tribute to its predisposition to natural disasters. Many of the densely-populated city’s residents live in slums or other informal settlements, often lying on a flood plain. As a result, the international media tends to ignore the city’s charms in favour of reporting on checkpoints and earthquakes, floods and typhoons.

All that, and tourism is one of the city’s largest industries, with visitor numbers increasing over 70 per cent over the last five years. If your city was in one of the world’s largest natural disaster zones, and tourists provided 6 per cent of its GDP, you’d probably over-react to celebrity insults, too.

This is a preview of our new sister publication, CityMetric. We'll be launching its website soon - in the meantime, you can follow it on Twitter and Facebook.

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times