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Homes A Look Inside Malacañang—The Seat Of Power In The Philippines

A Look Inside Malacañang—The Seat Of Power In The Philippines

A Look Inside Malacañang—The Seat Of Power In The Philippines
The Malacañan Palace façade as seen from the banks of the Pasig River
By Chit Lijauco
By Chit Lijauco
July 27, 2020
Standing for more than 200 years, Malacañan Palace has seen its share of political leaders come and go. With the latest tome on the Palace, we aim to shed light on its storied and glorious past

This feature story was originally titled as Malacañang: Seat of Power, and was published in the September 2005 issue of Tatler Philippines. Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was then the President of the Philippines.

Symbols do a significant service to the story of man, the life of a society, the perpetration of history. They are the tactile to the ethereal, something to touch. They are the reality to the abstract, something to see. They are the proof to the concept, something to believe in.

In the Philippines, one such symbol is the Malacañan Palace. The official residence of the President of the Republic, it symbolises, without a doubt, power. As such, whenever there is a threat to the present dispensation, the first and final objective is to take control of this historic and imposing edifice by the Pasig River.

Presidential Guards in rayadillo (ceremonial dress) keep watch over the entrances to the Palace
Presidential Guards in rayadillo (ceremonial dress) keep watch over the entrances to the Palace

Though its importance as a symbol can never be understated, the Palace, on its own, is already a rich history read. For more than 200 years, it has seen countless transformations, lending its will to the whim of its elite residents. But ever since the summerhouse was turned into the official residence of the leader of the country, it had stood witness to the weaving of the fabric of Philippine nationhood. It is this priceless personality of the Palace that is ensconced in text and visuals within the 330-page tome entitled Malacañan Palace: The Official Illustrated History.

About 10 years ago, a book on Malacañang's illustrious first families was written by the late National Artist Nick Joaquin. This time around, the publisher and authors of this new book have created a fitting "companion to the Joaquin book" by focusing on the residence itself.

And also, the correct way of spelling the name. "It's Malacañan without a 'g' if the word Palace follows; and with a 'g' if it stands alone, to refer to the entirety of the Palace and its surroundings," explains publisher Marily Orosa, quoting from the research of co-author Jeremy Barns who wrote the text together with Paulo Alcazaren and lead author Manuel L. Quezon III.

The Reception Hall in the early 1900s
The Reception Hall in the early 1900s

It has been her dream, so says the president of the 12-year-old Studio 5 Publishing, to produce a book on Malacañan Palace. "We have always preferred book projects that touch on Philippine history, art and culture," she adds.

"If we do not document it now, when else ought we to do it?" interjects photographer Wig Tysmans who says that this is perhaps, the hardest projects he has undertaken so far.

With full production rolling in late 2003, work got caught up in the frenzy of the campaigns for the May 2004 elections and permission to shoot in Malacañang was difficult to secure. "The agreement was that we couldn't shoot if the President was around," Tysmans explains.

Magsaysay Room, named after President Ramon Magsaysay who held Cabinet meetings here
Magsaysay Room, named after President Ramon Magsaysay who held Cabinet meetings here

"Problem is, her schedule is only revealed one day before," adds in Jay Bautista, Studio 5's liaison for book projects, who raised his arm two feet high to measure the pile of letters of requests they have sent to the Presidential Security Group. "Each and every shoot we have to secure permission."

"And for some reason, the PSG always chose a downcast or a rainy day for us to shoot!" Tysmans recalls, expressing great frustration for not being able to shoot certain spots, most especially the inability to do an aerial shot which was, to the Palace security, a definite no-no.

The Reception Hall with its famed Czechoslovak chandeliers
The Reception Hall with its famed Czechoslovak chandeliers
The ballroom, circa 1900
The ballroom, circa 1900
William Howard Taft, first Civil Governor of the Philippines and later 27th President of the United States
William Howard Taft, first Civil Governor of the Philippines and later 27th President of the United States

"But there were never was a time that we felt like giving up on the project," says Orosa who like the rest of the team, faced the challenge in high spirits. The subject itself lent ample inspiration.

Even on the technical aspect, the historic edifice inspired the publisher to use for a second time a unique feature called fore-edge painting. This is a style of book binding developed in the 17th century Britain involving the painting of a hidden photograph on the edges of the pages of a book.

"My husband saw it in an antique bookstore in Australia," Orosa relates, Studio 5 first tried fore-edging in the book Visions of the Possible: Legacies of Philippine Freedom, using the Kawit, Cavite balcony scene of the 1898 Declaration of Philippine Independence. For Malacañan Palace, the hidden painting is an old photograph of the Pasig façade.

The Aguinaldo Room was transformed into the State Dining Room during the Commonwealth
The Aguinaldo Room was transformed into the State Dining Room during the Commonwealth
The Azotea, photographed during the early 1900s
The Azotea, photographed during the early 1900s
The Marcos Room is furnished with Empire-style desk and chairs that President Marcos used from 1979 to 1986
The Marcos Room is furnished with Empire-style desk and chairs that President Marcos used from 1979 to 1986

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

The origin of the name "Malacañan" cannot really be ascertained, according to the book. There are several theories offered, through verbal or written stories handed down from generation to generation.

The theories emanate from the description of the original spot, described by the book as "...swampy, insalubrious and hence uninhabited. But it could have been a good fishing spot (if not actually the home of fishermen) and almost certainly was perceived—precisely because of its marshy, unhealthy, bamboo-teeming riverbank as an abode of many nuno (supernatural spirits)."

According to Orosa, Barns is most inclined to believe the theory that the word came from the Tagalog mamalakaya, which means, "fisherman". A place for fishermen in Tagalog is mamalakaya-han. This then, is close enough to be the Hispanised or simplified version Malacañan.

In the mid-1930s, then assistant director of the National Library Eulogio Rodriguez wrote of two possible derivatives for Malacañan. The first one is ma lakan iyan or the place of many great ones; the second is the Spanish mala caña, or "evil bamboo" or "evil cane". The latter refers to the thick growth of bamboo in the area which folks feared hid evil powerful spirits. It was also possible that ma lakan iyan could refer to the place of great powerful spirits.

And the last theory came from the heirs of its first owner, the Spanish businessman Luis Rocha. It is said that whenever he took his siesta, his Sikh watchman would caution little children against making any noise lest his master awaken by saying, "Malaki iyan!"

Governor General William Cameron Forbes sits with his Cabinet in front of the Palace Fountain
Governor General William Cameron Forbes sits with his Cabinet in front of the Palace Fountain

GENESIS

In Southeast Asia, Malacañan Palace enjoys the status of being the second oldest official residence of the head of state, next only to the Royal Palace of Bangkok. It predates Tokyo's Imperial Palace.

The first reference to the house is an account at the turn of the 19th century, which told of the sale of a summer house owned by Rocha on what was then known as "Calzada de Malacañang". This was in 1802, and it was bought by Colonel José Miguel Formento for 1,000 pesos.

When Formento died in 1825, the property was then sold to the Spanish government for 5,100 pesos. It was bough for the purpose of providing a summer residence for the Governor-General, the highest official of the land; such designation made official by the Royal Decree of 1847. In 1863, however, an earthquake destroyed the official Royal Palace in Intramuros. The Governor-General had no choice but to turn his summer residence into the new seat of power.

THE QUEZON LOOK

Through the American and Japanese periods, Malacañan Palace kept its official function as the residence of whoever held the highest government position, carrying this over to the time when government was finally ceded to the Filipinos, with Manuel Luis Quezon being the first President of the Philippine Commonwealth. Through all these years and changeovers, the Palace's residents have made their own alterations, additions and renovations, adding more history and character to the former summer house. Most noteworthy of those who changed the look of Malacañang were President Quezon and First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos.

Before President Quezon took over his post, he had already expressed the desire to make Malacañan Palace his official residence. By law, it was still the residence of the American High Commissioner who replaced the Spanish Governor-General as a symbol of American sovereignty. But Quezon wanted Malacañang so he made sure that negotiations included the transfer of the residence by the Pasig. He got his wish. The final Philippine Independence Act (Tydings-McDuffie Act) officially handed over the Palace to the President of the Philippines.

The Presidential Study became the official office of the President during the Magsaysay administration
The Presidential Study became the official office of the President during the Magsaysay administration

The changing looks of Malacañan Palace can be viewed from its side facing Pasig River. Realising this, Malacañan Palace decided to start each chapter with the transition photos of that Pasig River façade. "We call it the 20-peso look," says Orosa, referring to the visual that graces the back of the Philippine bill.

Basically, Quezon adapted Malacañang to the "Filipino manner of entertaining and governing". Before this, the American look was very officious and businesslike. There were no provisions for big crowds to gather. Quezon wanted the people to be able to come to Malacañang with their needs; as well as be able to entertain in the grand way so natural to the Filipinos. Thus the Palace was opened up to accommodate these functions.

If Quezon lent pomp and pageantry to the look of the Palace, Imelda Marcos brought it notches up in the scale of grandiosity. Most noticeable of the changes that underwent through the 18 years that the Marcoses occupied Malacañang are details that number seven, apparently a favourite lucky number. She also introduced breathtaking workmanship of the woodcarvers from Betis, Pampanga in the ceilings and panelings of many rooms in the Palace.

Unfortunately, during the Marcos era as well, Malacañang was also turned into a fortress. The Pasig river façade was closed, its walls made bulletproof. And every opening was enclosed in grills.

All the changes that have taken place, through photographs and architectural drawings, dot the Malacañan Palace book, making it one of the richest historical tomes in the library of Philippine books. But the extensive research has stumbled upon another purpose by accident.

The Palace Fountain is beautifully illuminated at night
The Palace Fountain is beautifully illuminated at night

Malacañan Palace is the power of the government institution. As long as it stands tall and strong, the nation is intact—regardless of its tenant.

PRESERVING HISTORY

Under President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, an ongoing restoration of the Palace is being undertaken, specifically to bring back the Quezon look. In this task, the research materials gathered for the book have become a vital source of information.

Through the many pictures and accounts of interviewees, the restoration team which both co-authors Quezon and Barns are involved with, the latter taking over the post of Presidential Adviser for Historical Affairs from the former, is able to identify missing or misplaced items or artefacts.

For instance, in many of the old photographs, presidents were shown signing momentous declarations on a massive ornate table, which no one has seen for a time. Upon searching though, it was found with one of the clerks who had no idea at all as to its historical value.

Until time travel becomes a possibility, history will just have to be written in books and preserved in antiques and artefacts; for once lost, it is gone forever. The beauty with history, however, is that it is continuously being written. The struggle of a nation is constantly being woven; and as the story continues to unfold, permanent symbols will always provide comfort, especially in trying times.

Malacañan Palace is the power of the government institution. As long as it stands tall and strong, the nation is intact—regardless of its tenant; whether it was the Spanish Governor, American Governor-General or Philippine President. Two hundred years have proven this.

  • Photography Wig Tysmans / Studio 5 Publishing
  • Images Presidential Museum and Library Archives

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