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#HeistClub: Manila in the Eyes of an Outsider

BY MARK MANALANG

The signboards light up one by one as the sun sets on Manila Bay. The bars along Remedios and Adriatico fill up with patrons. Cosplaying girls assemble at the doorsteps of karaoke clubs in Mabini. Traffic along Padre Faura and Taft builds up. Tourists roam the streets aimlessly, while beggars selling flowers and asking for loose change tail them.

In the streets of Manila, the curtain rises on Sampaguita: This City is Crying, the beginning of the tale of a man’s quest for revenge, redemption, love and justice.

The most difficult part of writing Sampaguita was conceptualizing protagonist Kenichi Daimon. The young CEO and heir of Diamond Group of Companies is a hot-blooded socialite, a calculating tycoon, a strict but nurturing boss, a sweet lover, and a well-rounded Japanese in heart and soul. However, he is human after all, and his humanity is reflected in his musings about his second home.

At this point, to further dig into Kenichi’s psyche, I decided to retrace my steps in his familiar territory: Manila’s red-light district. Malate and Ermita are a melting pot of peoples and cultures. There’s a sizable number of foreigners living, working, and setting up businesses here.

Having moved from Tokyo, Kenichi is a fish out of water. He’s fluent in English but barely learning conversational Filipino. His street smarts are not yet adapted for Manila. This is why he takes time to wander around.

Kenichi views Manila with a wary attitude, and for good reason: Crime is a real threat for him.

His frequent walks have taught him that the streets are dangerous, especially at night. He must have encountered con-men preying on the defenseless, some even daring to target him. He may have been offered a lot of girls, enough to make him notice the shady aspects of Manila’s sex trade. Poverty is a given—beggars are a usual sight, though I imagine that he would be the type who frowns at giving alms.

He’s aware of red tape and other corrupt practices. Maybe he heard of how officials discreetly ask for grease money, or haggle under-the-table deals over liquor. Maybe he’s been asked to give “special favors” to politicians, something a CEO with a single strict set of principles such as him would likely condemn.  (Incidentally, the kanji for Kenichi’s name can be read as “one set of principles.”)

He is drawn to the drama and absurdity of the country’s crime news. Crimes of passion, serial crimes, illegal drugs, robbery—he had read them in all their tabloid-style glory. If anything, he may be inwardly criticizing the police, and he’s likely to pick up some related (read: crime-solving) analytical skills.

If there’s something comforting about his life in the red-light district, it’s seeing Roxas Boulevard.

In this universe, some commercial stalls were allowed to set up in Baywalk, one of which is the fictional food truck Raumen Rider. Kenichi is a patron of the Japanese-owned ramen bar, and a close friend of the owner. Hanging out with a fellow countryman probably makes him less lonely among locals.

The best feature of Roxas Boulevard is the sunset at Manila Bay, far unlike the ones over Tokyo’s cityscape. The sunset is breathtaking, though there’s a sense of melancholy that comes with watching the night fall. Perhaps standing at awe before the calming waves of the sea also eases his homesickness.

But what catches Kenichi’s attention the most is the people. He knows that Filipinos are hardworking, cheerful and resilient in the face of adversity. He knows each person has a story to tell, and he is mindful of their struggles, strengths or weaknesses. He knows how difficult life in Manila is, and how people strive to survive day by day.

Walking the streets of Manila gave Kenichi a feeling of wonder, caution and sadness; a reminder that he’s far from home, in a lonely place, surrounded by people who harden their hearts and hold their chin up in a city filled with pain, suffering, and tears.

This leaves a question: What has made Kenichi cold and hard-hearted towards Manila and the plight of those around him?

The answer is simple: Kenichi believed he is powerless to change anything.

His influence is limited to his status as a tycoon. He’s in a society with a rotten system, and he is compelled to follow that system. Furthermore, living in Manila meant dealing with the local powers-that-be in their own rules. As a foreigner, he is powerless to change the sorry state of society, much less his own playing field. Thus, he grew accustomed to living with that powerlessness.

It’s not that he doesn’t want anything to do with this society he is in; it’s just that he can’t, so he might as well not. At the end of the day, he had to ultimately stick to his role and detach himself from the reality around him.

The premise of Sampaguita lies in the question, “What would you do if a crime happens in front of you?” This was first answered when I wrote The Seven-Day Detective, my first crime story for #JustWritePH in 2014. A person who has even an iota of concern for a stranger can do something to save his or her life, a belief that the protagonist banked on to stop a serial rapist’s rampage.

In Sampaguita, Kenichi, who is nearly devoid of that concern, does the opposite. This leads to consequences that would shake everything he believes in.

Dozens of revisions, a second edition, and lots of internal struggling later, I’ve started writing the sequel. The next story will take Kenichi to more places around Manila, where every encounter will lead him closer to his sought-after retribution, as well as unravel discoveries that would test his true feelings and shape his eventual fate.

What kind of person will Kenichi become from here on out? Time–and the cruel twists of fate in a land not his own–will tell. ☁️

#HeistClub is a community of Filipino crime fiction writers. Click here to read more from them.
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