We were introduced to Sai aka Versailles through British-Filipino filmmaker Angela Stephenson who made a documentary about the Manila scene a few years ago. She recommended Sai as someone at the heart of Manila’s super vibrant creative scene. She’s not wrong, Sai is a resident on Manila Community Radio, founder of Cultural Learnings and Edsa, platforms exploring contemporary culture and the intersection of food and creativity respectively. Her love and insight of culture is apparent as she takes us deep into her city of Manila in this special city guide, accompanied by a phenomenally eclectic mix of 100% Manila music.
Have a listen to the mix whilst getting to know more about the city through Versailles’ answers below.
Favourite place to buy records (old and/or new)?
Treskul on Boni Avenue in Mandaluyong is a great place for obscure digs — from Hong Kong Pop to one-time presses. This Is Pop carries newer records from here, near, and far. They also have a wider range of electronic music selections.
Favourite live music venue?
Go-to venues for live music used to be Route 196 for rock music, Limbo for experimental sounds, and Dulo for your more eclectic fare. But they’ve all permanently closed due to the pandemic.
During more normal times, you can find the TAGO Jazz Collective in pop-ups around the city or at their jazz café in Cubao. Café Libertad in Makati also had jazz nights every Thursday pre-pandemic. The Philippines is big on cover bands (see Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown S07E05 for reference) and you can really take a glimpse of that culture at Strumm’s in Makati. If you’re lucky, you can stumble upon a show or two inside the First United Building in Escolta Street, being one of the few heritage buildings left in Manila.
Best soundsystem / favourite club?
My favourite club in Manila was XX XX (pronounced 20 20). However, it permanently shut its doors due to the pandemic.
By far, the best sound system in Manila is in OTO, not to be missed by any audiophile. They serve some of the best coffee and cocktails in the city, being one of Asia’s Top 50 Bars. (I personally order an Oaxaca Old-Fashioned – a mezcal take on a classic.) Make sure to take an ABC shot with a friend or the bartender.
Best party in the city?
Before the pandemic, Elephant at XX XX was a go-to party for me – a queer-friendly night of experimental and leftfield techno sounds. However, with the pandemic and XX XX closed, it’s been difficult to think about going to parties.
With all this considered, my favourite pandemic party is probably Evening Breeze by transit records. Evening Breeze had their first and only party in XX XX last January and transit moved their events online when the city enforced quarantine measures. The virtual parties they threw for Evening Breeze felt almost as good as being out, oddly enough; the people who were there were some of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of being around – something to get excited about when we can finally dance together.
Describe Manila in three words.
Eclectic. Restless. Gritty.
Best spot for a picnic?
Manila is a city notorious for its lack of green space (I wrote a piece about this for CNN Philippines) and given how hot, humid and polluted it is here, picnicking is not a popular activity.
I would, however, recommend going to the Legazpi Sunday Market and park yourself closeby at either the Washington Sycip Park or the Legazpi Active Park. The Curator on Legazpi Street is also a stone’s throw away from the market and they have a nice stoop where you can enjoy your coffee on a bright, sunny day.
Is there somewhere you like going to escape the hustle and bustle and take some time away for yourself?
If you’re in Manila for ample time (i.e. more than five days), I’d suggest using some of that time to go to the beach. Take a plane out to Siargao Island, which is in the southeastern part of the country. Other than being famous for its surf, there is a vibrant local community there of small businesses and creatives.
There is also Coron in Palawan or Boracay Island – all of which you will find, what I believe to be, the finest sand in the world. But the Philippines is an archipelago of 7,107 islands. With a bit more research, you will realise how spoilt you are with choice here.
What is a typical breakfast, lunch, and dinner in Manila? What are the best local dishes?
Pan de sal (local bread roll) with coconut jam.
Tortang talong, or a pan-fried eggplant omelette. I wrote an entire newsletter about it here, which includes a recipe.
Longganisa (local breakfast sausage) with a side of rice and egg. There are many varieties depending on the region. My favourites are Vigan (tangy, spicy, and garlicky) and Lucban (More herby and garlicky, less spicy) longganisa.
“Ginataang” everything! (Meaning “done in coconut milk.) My favourites are laing (taro leaves) and gising gising (stringed green beans or locally known as “sigarilyas.”)
Kinilaw or kilawin (what you call it depends on the region, too.) It’s the Filipino take on the Peruvian ceviche or Italian carpaccio, which uses fruit juice to denature the proteins of raw fish. The difference is that, traditionally, kinilaw/kilawin uses tabon tabon for the denaturing process – a tropical fruit often described to have more “astringent” than citrus qualities.
Sisig, or chopped pig face on a sizzling cast iron plate. Great with a cold beer and rice.
Kare-kare is a meat-peanut stew served with rice and a side of bagoong (fermented fish, krill, or shrimp). Ox-tail is a popular choice, but there are varieties that serve beef, pork, or tripe.
Sinigang, a sour tamarind soup usually served with meat or seafood – my favourite version being the one with prawns.
For a taste of local coffee beans, Kalsada are the purveyors. The Den in Escolta Street use Kalsada beans for their coffee but you can also purchase directly from Kalsada online. For local roasteries, I recommend Yardstick and EDSA BDG (The Grid, inside PowerPlant Mall). Of course, OTO and The Curator serve great coffee too.
If you are looking for a real dining “experience” of the local cuisine, I recommend either Toyo Eatery or Metiz, both located in The Alley at Karrivin. While Toyo has an eight-course (sixteen dishes) degustation menu, featuring contemporary takes on local favourites; Metiz has a five-course menu of entirely new dishes using the Filipino flavour profile. Both serve incredibly delicious and interesting Filipino food. Otherwise, Mecha Uma serves, in my opinion, the best omakase in the city with their 12-course degustation menu.
For something more casual, Manam is a great restaurant for Filipino comfort food – everything they have is great. I also highly recommend TETSUO for their chicken karaage. Around the corner from OTO and TETSUO’s Poblacion branch is Krapow with the spiciest phat kaphrao in the city (They have other equally great dishes, such as pad see ew moo, i.e. wok fried rice noodles.) If you are feeling tacos, Lagrima and La Chinesca are my favourites.
Other than OTO and Curator, LIT in Bonifacio Global City is a nice, humble speakeasy-style bar, serving Japanese whiskies and spirits – great highballs. They also serve Vietnamese pho on Sundays, which is lovely.
In Poblacion, there’s Futur:st with their coffee nipple shots; they used to host great nights of underground music before the pandemic but have since focused on their restaurant, as well as organising pop-up dinners and art shows. La Vie en Rose on Gabaldon Street is another speakeasy-style joint with the classiest furnishings I’ve seen in any bar in town — taxidermied animals, mid-century couches, and the like.
What are the best local dishes or street food in Manila & where to eat them?
If you can find a local bakery that sells kakanin (glutinous rice delicacies), I highly recommend that. Budbud are sometimes in Legazpi Sunday Market and serve suman (rice cake with coconut rice) of varying flavours. For maja blanca (glutinous rice, coconut milk, and corn), biko (rice cake with brown sugar), sapin sapin (kind of like biko, but colourful!), and kutsinta (yema rice cake topped with shredded coconut), you can place orders with Minatamis. Bibingkas (rice cake with salted egg) are also one of my favourite kakanin delicacies – some of the best I’ve tried being from Bibingka Manila.
However, true street food can only be found in one place: The street! A must try is taho (silken tofu with sago (tapioca) pearls and arnibal (sugar/vanilla syrup), and; sorbetes, or what is colloquially known as “dirty ice cream,” made with carabao’s milk. My favourite dirty ice cream flavours being ube (purple taro) and cheese together – you better believe it.
Best place to experience something unique to Manila?
Ride a jeepney, which you can only find in the Philippines.
What iconic building(s) in your city should one go take a look at and why?
The Cultural Center of the Philippines in Pasay, close to Manila Bay, is probably one of my favourite buildings in the city because it pays testament to how underrated a brutalist destination Manila is. Along EDSA, which is a long thoroughfare cutting across the city, there is a brutalist KFC branch that looks strangely beautiful.
Any cool non-record and non-music shops worth checking out?
Many physical shops, especially those run by small businesses, have struggled to sustain retail operations due to the pandemic, resulting in an exodus towards online sales. Tropa in Legazpi Village and frankie & friends are one of the few local retailers to keep their brick and mortar open. They have a selection of locally made clothing and objects, focused on tropical living. I would recommend keeping your eyes peeled for Studio Eustacia (womenswear) E.C. (unisex), Fortune W.W.D. (menswear) and Saan Saan (the most beautifully scented soy candles.)
If we had to buy one local thing from your city to take back, what would it be?
Anything that is locally produced, handmade, or harvested. Ritual is a general store that carries a range of local goods – from indigenous ingredients from various parts of the Philippines to artisanal objects. Sadly, they had to close their physical shop because of the pandemic but they are still taking orders online. Support local!
What do you associate most strongly with Manila?
The track “Young Folks” by Peter Bjorn & John.
First thing you miss after leaving Manila?
The food and my friends.
Where are the most beautiful spots in Manila?
Intramuros is the most visually interesting area of Manila to me because it’s a holdover of what is left from the Spanish colonial period. It goes to show how culturally diverse and interesting Manila has and can be.
Best place to see another medium of art other than music?
The Alley at Karrivin is home to many of the best galleries in Manila, including Drawing Room, Artinformal and Silverlens. For anthropological artefacts, visit Ayala Museum in Makati or any of the National Museums in Intramuros. I also recommend visiting the art library of Bellas Artes Projects in Quezon City (by appointment only). BAP is an art non-profit that bridges gaps between Filipino and international artists through artist residences and educational programmes. They built a chapel designed by American artist Not Vital in their residency and heritage site, Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar in Bataan, and have hosted international artists like Eddie Peake, Paul Pfeiffer, and Hugo McCloud.
There’s also the HUB Make Lab in Escolta Street, an artist-led cultural programme inside the First United Building. In fact, there’s always something to see in that part of town (i.e. Binondo) where you can find the oldest Chinatown in the world. Binondo was once a bustling cultural and commercial hub in Manila, dotted with some of the most beautiful art-deco buildings the city has ever seen. But the neighbourhood was poorly preserved, so only glimpses of its former glory stands today. (I’ve written about the struggle to preserve Manila’s heritage architecture for CNN Philippines before.) Interesting destination, nonetheless!
Where will you find the friendliest, most interesting locals to have a chat with?
You’ll meet a lot of artists and creatives if you hang around the First United Building for long enough (and Escolta Street, generally). The Poblacion neighbourhood is not as vibrant as it used to be because of the pandemic. But you’ll find some interesting folks manning their shops there. The stoop of The Curator is a meeting point for local cyclists these days.
Is there any activity you must do when visiting Manila?
Climbing! The Bouldering Hive in Ayala Circuit Mall is my home gym and I sometimes do top rope climbing at Climb Central in Greenfields, Mandaluyong. Cycling too, if you’re gritty enough to brave Manila’s traffic (i.e. the most congested city in the world — more than Mumbai, Calcutta, and Shanghai.)
What’s the best and worst thing about living in Manila?
The bureaucracy in Manila can either be very slow or catered towards a select, privileged few. This is a frustration for many people across different demographic groups, but it is especially poignant for Manila’s creatives who rely on these infrastructures to support them. This can give a sense that things aren’t progressing or getting better, which can be toxic. The recent closures of the city’s cultural institutions during the pandemic and the lack of support from the bureaucracy pays testament to this and it makes the community deeply sad. That’s probably the worst thing about the city. The traffic is pretty terrible too.
However, I think the relentless drive of the creative community here makes Manila a great city. In developed cities where there is more visibility for creative projects, it can sometimes feel like you are spoiled with choice. The Philippines, let alone Manila, is still a relatively young country. So, when something lifts off from the ground, it feels part of a bigger cause that is dedicated towards pushing the best local talent out there and into the world. I really believe in my peers who go out of their way to keep people’s spirits up by putting something out there that is an expression of who they are. It’s admirable, and it makes Manila a better place.
Who’s doing good things for Manila music right now, who you’d like to shout out?
I want to give the BIGGEST shout out to the team behind Manila Community Radio. They are setting a precedent for what sounds the city can experience once we can be in the same physical space again. As someone who only started DJing during the pandemic, being a part of MCR made my learning curve very steep and fruitful. I owe it to the strong community of artists and listeners they created and I’m excited to see what’s in store for them in 2021.
What are some of your favourite up-and-coming DJs/producers/musicians bubbling up in Manila right now?
I really love some of the releases from transit records last year. Local Sun focuses on organic, balearic sounds as an explicit reflection of his Filipino heritage, while Saint Guel is a house maestro to be reckoned with. Tomas’ track ‘Anybody Need This?’ was a real banger for me in 2020.
There’s also Buwan Buwan Collective, who are really pushing the boundaries of what experimental electronic music could be in the Philippines. They came out with an amazing compilation last year called Phoenicia. Special shout outs to Floating Sound Nation, AHJU$$I, lui., LIKE ANIMALS, and similarobjects.
Others producers that come to mind: crwn is a master in incorporating elements of dance and house music with pop, hip-hop, funk, and soul. LONER, part of the label Manila Dance, is young and a real purveyor for Filipino house music. Tarsius and Limsum for your deeper and groovier electronic fare. Teya Logos is a 17-year-old trans artist that is carving her own unique voice in the underground dance music scene, despite never having been to a club! Some of the most talented DJs in Manila I know are Ayøn, Baby Ikea, Duality, Katsu, Samantha Nicole. Sky Dominique, TISHA, Trust, and Tropical Futures.
Could you tell us about the mix you’ve made for us? Where and how did you record it, what was the idea behind it and are there?
The Philippines has a long history of colonization and exchange. So, its culture always resisted neat categories, always taking influence from other cultures. Filipino music certainly fits this bill and I wanted this mix to illustrate that range of influence within the Filipino electronic music scene – from the “Manila Sound” variety of disco and bossa nova, to acid house. It features local artists I deeply respect and have been pivotel to my journey in learning how to DJ under lockdown. I hope this mix convinces more international listeners to keep an ear out for what the Filipino music scene has to offer.
And finally, what’s on the horizon for you in terms of show dates, releases or any upcoming projects that we should look out for?
I curate and author Cultural Learnings, a newsletter exploring discussions in contemporary culture. Each newsletter always starts with a question and hopefully by the end you’ve found something resembling an answer. More than anything, it is a glorified recommendations list of films, books, music, podcasts, and articles that I like. You can also tune in to my radio show on Manila Community Radio every Wednesday at 17:00 GMT+8 where I play an eclectic selection of music that is (most of the time) themed, like early 2000s film soundtracks, “meditation” music, and the history of electronic dance music. My previous mixes are available for playback on Mixcloud.
I also co-founded Edsa, a creative collaboration exploring ideas of food and creativity. Our first capsule collection of mushroom-inspired sweatshirts did surprisingly well and we recently partnered with Takeout to create a limited edition t-shirt for OTO in aid of Manila’s restaurant industry during the pandemic. We hope to drop more merch and pursue more projects in 2021!
Catch Versailles on Manila Community Radio every Wednesday 17:00-18:00 GMT+8.
Celeste Legaspi – Bolero Medley
Bong Penera – Sa Dako Paroon
VST & Company – Disco Fever
Joe Bataan – Ordinary Guy (Jazzanova Rework Extended Version)
TALA – Ain’t Leavin’ Without You
((( O ))) – Come Home O’Shawn
LUSTBASS – GOD
Up Dharma Down – Taya (Local Sun Tamad Edit)
crwn – From Time to Time
Saint Guel – For The Floor
Aries & LONER – Indigo
Limsum – XLB
Tarsius – Carburator
Like Animals – Valproic Acid House
Yuki Ame – Blue Room (similarobjects Remix)
Local Sun – Pasion Y Tristeza