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 a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt