The Manila Hotel: Philippines' first luxury hotel where the Beatles caused a diplomatic incident

​Should you take afternoon tea at the five-star Manila Hotel, don't mention the Beatles. Sure, the first luxury hotel in the Philippines is most famous for being General Douglas MacArthur's command post when the Japanese attacked Manila in 1941, hours after they'd bombed Pearl Harbor. And during the corrupt Marcos dictatorship (1972-1986, when Ferdinand embezzled an estimated $US10 billion), his infamous first lady Imelda used the hotel as her second home.

Here, too, Cory Aquino, the nation's first female president, made her 1986 speech which led to the peaceful  People Power revolution which overthrew the Marcos regime. MacArthur, Imelda and Cory all feature prominently in the hotel's "heritage room", along with other celebrities who stayed since the hotel opened in 1912. But there's no mention of the Beatles.

Why, I ask guide Caitlin, as she unlocks the heritage room? She's wearing her hotel uniform: emerald green, neck to toe, with a long train usually only seen in Disney films. I apologise in advance in case I step on her train. "Don't worry," she laughs. "You won't be the first." But back to the Beatles. What happened? "It was ugly," Caitlin says. "We don't talk about it."

According to Filipinos, in 1966 Imelda invited the Beatles during their last tour to play at the presidential palace for 200 children from Manila's most privileged families. This was between the supergroup's afternoon and evening concerts in front of 140,000 paying fans.

In fact Beatles' manager Brian Epstein didn't know about Imelda's invite, which was not passed on by the local promoter. Suddenly, a media war was declared: the Marcos family versus the Beatles. Epstein explained no snub had been intended in a radio broadcast, mysteriously drowned out by static.

Bomb threats followed, to the hotel and the British embassy. Security was withdrawn, limousines cancelled. At Manila airport next morning, escalators were turned off, forcing the Fab Four to carry their suitcases and instruments up stairs while being spat at by Marcos supporters.

Guns were fired. "Ringo Starr was floored by an upper cut. As he crawled away, the mob kicked him," reported The Manila Times. "George Harrison and John Lennon received kicks and blows as they ran to the customs zone."

Two of the Beatles are now dead, So too are MacArthur, Ferdinand Marcos and Cory. But Manila Hotel's heritage room still contains numerous photos of Imelda, now aged 90. Here she is with Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, "Bobby" Kennedy, Richard Nixon, illustrating that Imelda was the Eva Peron of south-east Asia.

Caitlin points out other signatures in the VIP book. Both Michael Jackson and Prince Charles stayed in the presidential suite in the "new" tower, while Nelson Mandela (like Bill and Hillary Clinton) preferred the historic MacArthur suite. MacArthur last visited in 1961, but his long shadow still dominates the heritage room.

Advertisement

The "altar" is his wooden chair with his Field Marshal's hat. Along with Lee, Custer and Patton, the vain, ambitious MacArthur remains one of history's most controversial US generals. He insisted upon a special deal before retiring from the US military and accepting the job as Field Marshal of the Philippines, then a US colony, with the largest US military base in Asia.

His Filipino HQ would be the entire top floor of The Manila Hotel. It included seven bedrooms; drawing room and private banqueting hall to entertain guests of state; a library to contain his 10,000 military books. Plus a salary equal to the Filipino president who employed him. Despite this, MacArthur was surprised when the Imperial Japanese forces bombed Fort McKinley, now Fort Bonifacio.

His most famous words – "I shall return" – were issued in Adelaide after an ignominious flight to safety. MacArthur did return to the Philippines in 1944. But by then the Japanese had killed 1.8 million Filipinos and The Manila Hotel had been destroyed.

Anyone fancy the hotel's signature cocktail – the Chamberlain: Gilbey's gin, lime juice and lemonade – in the rebuilt Tap Room? Here you can gaze at the famous singers who have stayed at The Manila Hotel. JacksonLiza Minnelli, Sammy Davis Jr but strangely, no photo of the Beatles.

But the 1986 overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship is also known as "the People Power" revolution; Lennon was assassinated in 1980. Could the Filipino revolution have been inspired by his 1971 hit, Power to the People?

TRIP NOTES

FLY

Philippine Airlines operates several direct flights a week to Manila from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. See philippineairlines.com

STAY

Rooms at Fairmont Makati from $195, see fairmont.com/makati. Rooms at The Manila Hotel from from $175, see manila-hotel.com.ph

MORE

traveller.com.au/philippines

tourismphilippines.com.au

Steve Meacham was a guest of Brisbane Airport Corporation, Fairmont Makati, Manila and Philippine Airlines.

Comments