The authorities keep trying to ban celebrities from Manila

Why is the Filipino capital so sensitive?

Justin Bieber: big in Manila. Photo: Getty.
Justin Bieber: big in Manila. Photo: Getty.

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.