“…the street signs on the sidewalks were brick pedestals, as tall as a man, with cornices and pediments to honor the Spanish inventor of the submarine, and the flowering trees met in a canopy above smart shops, cafes, a university campus, a Protestant cathedral, a new hotel, The Bayview, and a newfangled apartment building named Kneedler.”

(Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, describing 1930’s Isaac Peral St., Ermita, Manila, in the autobiographical “Myself, Elsewhere,” 2006)

You know where the U.N. Avenue is. It’s a major thoroughfare that starts at the fork of Quirino Avenue and Paz Mendoza Guazon St. (formerly Otis St.) in Paco, and then terminates at Roxas Boulevard in Ermita. Today, it is home to landmarks like the WHO Headquarters, the Pope Pius XII Catholic Center, the Waterfront Manila Hotel (previously the Manila Hilton), and the recently demolished Philamlife Building. The Bayview Hotel described by Ms. Nakpil still stands at the Roxas Boulevard corner of this avenue, although it now has new owners and is known as The Bayview Park Hotel.  

But when I was growing up in the late 1950’s and 1960’s, this street was called Calle Isaac Peral. Even though it was re-named to commemorate the 17th anniversary of the United Nations, the original name stuck for many more years. This tree-lined avenue was the address of several cafes and restaurants where our family occasionally dined. Nora Daza’s Au Bon Vivant was the first French bistro in Manila, and I remember at least one dinner there with a Jaycee colleague of my father, a mestizo Frenchman named Rene Fournier, who put the pretentious waiters to shame by ordering in Tagalog. Sometimes, we had pastries at Taza de Oro, a café owned by an American lady, Hazel Hedrick, which competed with another pasteleria, Dulcinea, along nearby Mabini Street. And how could I forget the Country Bakeshop, which served the “pianono,” a Filipino version of a sponge cake roll, with butter and sugar filling, that was originally created in Granada, Spain, and named after Pope Pius IX? (He hailed from Italy, and the folks there fondly called him “Pio Nono,’ later to be Filipinized as “pianono.”)

Owned by partners Dra. Fe Ilano and Gloria Nichols – Mrs. Nichols would later go on to open The Rolling Pin along M. H. del Pilar – Country Bakeshop was the precursor of coffee shops in Manila, and the favorite haunt of newspaper columnists. Doroy Valencia regularly held court there, and American celebrities who were billeted at the Manila Hotel often dropped by. We were having breakfast there one Sunday morning in 1969 when Hollywood actor Cliff Robertson, who was shooting the war movie “Too Late The Hero” in Manila at the time, walked in. (Filming was largely done in a then unknown island called Boracay.) As a child, I also remember being wide-eyed at how the bakers decorated the cakes in front of the customers by forming funnels with wax paper and attaching a steel nozzle with variously patterned tips, and this demonstration of swirling rosettes and other embellishments was frequently the highlight of our visits there. Our favorite order was Spanish bread with white cheese and orange marmalade, and a cup of coffee. A long rectangular box containing a “pianono” was often the treat that delighted our relatives when we visited them in Cavite City.

But not too many know who Isaac Peral y Caballero was. He was a Spanish engineer and naval officer, who served in Manila as a hydrographer and ship captain in 1881. His real claim to fame was his invention of the world’s first electric battery-powered submarine with a periscope, an underwater lamp, and a torpedo-firing capability, features that were considered an innovation at the time. Although submersible crafts had been developed much earlier, Peral’s version was the first to have a reliable propulsion system, and in 1888, the underwater boat, fittingly christened “Peral,” sailed out of the La Carraca Naval Base in San Fernando, Spain. Sadly, financial woes and political intrigues halted the development of a second submarine, and the project was jettisoned in 1889.

Alluding to the Spanish-American War of 1898, Commodore George Dewey acknowledged that if the Spanish navy in Cavite had used Peral’s submarine, the American blockade would not have been effective. That war had been triggered by the mysterious explosion that sank the USS Maine as it was docked at the Havana Harbor in February 1898. The vessel had been sent to Cuba to protect American business interests that were threatened by the revolutionary war of independence against the Spanish colonial government, the so-called “Cuba Libre” movement. Although there were conflicting versions about the actual cause of the explosion, American public opinion, swayed in no small measure by the sensationalist yellow journalism of Joseph Pulitzer’s and William Randolph Hearst’s competing newspapers, compelled President William McKinley to reluctantly declare war. Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines were to be embroiled in the conflict. I wonder if the course of that campaign would have been altered if Spain had a fleet of “Peral” submarines.

What a curious and peculiar thing to see all of these seemingly unrelated observations and historical events converge in the art form that emerged after the end of the Spanish tobacco monopoly in the Philippines in 1882. The mushrooming of cigar and cigarette factories in Binondo, Bulacan, Pampanga, Bataan, Cavite, and Batangas brought forth a flourishing tobacco trade, and ushered an era of distinct trademarks and cigarette wrapper designs. Fiestas, rustic landscapes, tropical flora and fauna, and allegorical renditions of Filipina women were favorite themes, but in many cases, artistic license created motifs that bordered on the whimsical and fantastic. Such was the case with “La Hoja Pura” (or “The Pure Leaf”) of the proprietor T. Cobarrubias, whose fabrica de cigarros y cigarillos was located at No. 5 Elcano Street (named after Spanish navigator Juan Sebastian del Cano, who captained the “Victoria” back to Spain after Magellan’s death, thus completing the first circumnavigation of the world). Using a portrait of Isaac Peral in full military attire, with symbols of transoceanic voyages, the design subliminally portrayed the submarine inventor as an endorser of the smoking habit.

In “La Cubana” (or “The Cuban Lady”), the brand used by Pedro Roxas O, whose fabrica de tabacos was housed at No. 6 Calle Carvajal (named after the Supreme Court Justice who helped Governor-General Jose Basco organize the tobacco monopoly), the art work of the wrapper depicted the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana, and inexplicably positioned Peral’s submarine underneath. However, the Spanish-American War of 1898, which was sparked by this maritime incident, in fact took place nine years after the “Peral” was already scuttled.

Old street names are a metaphor of our storied past, marking a moment or celebrating an individual. That they should be re-christened to honor politicians, anniversaries or otherwise obscure individuals is almost a crime against the memory of historical figures who walked on our cities, enriched our culture, or made a significant contribution to the world at large. I prefer to remember Calle Isaac Peral, not just to honor the man, but also to evoke a gentler, more carefree, and more innocent time in my youth.

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