Saturday, June 5, 1999

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
The mayor of Manila, Joselito "Lito" Atienza Jr.,
stopped in Honolulu this week.

Manila’s mayor
keeps Hawaii
as his ideal

Joselito 'Lito' Atienza Jr.,
once a dancer in Waikiki, has
helped the city prosper

By Susan Kreifels


He is known for getting rid of Manila's prostitutes, who pelted him with tomatoes when he campaigned in what used to be the red-light district.

Then he legalized street vending -- the livelihood of squatters -- giving the poorest of the poor a sense of self-worth, his city millions of pesos more in taxes, and tourists what he called the "best bargain-shopping in Asia."

All the while wearing his trademark aloha shirts.

Joselito "Lito" Atienza Jr., who was elected mayor of Manila last year, was a Filipino folk dancer in Waikiki's most prestigious hotels during the 1960s. He has carried aloha with him ever since.

Atienza stopped in Honolulu on the way back from Washington, D.C., where he spoke with the World Bank about loans to clean up Manila slums.

His dream: to make Manila the Waikiki of Asia -- or some resemblance.

"Honolulu is a prosperous Philippines," says Atienza, whose six children all have Hawaiian names.

"We had water like this before," he recalls, looking down Waikiki Beach. "Manila Bay is a product of our negligence. We could very well be like Hawaii."

To anyone who has visited the Philippine capital, comparing the two places might seem a far stretch. Atienza admitted Filipinos have used Manila Bay as "one big sewer," that city streets are strewn with garbage and flood in the rainy season because of crumbling infrastructure.

The city is squeezed with 2 million permanent residents, and the population almost doubles in the daytime. Street kids and squatter families camp under bridges or on deserted property.

But beneath the decades of decay and government neglect still lies the gracious Spanish architecture of the once-beautiful, 428-year-old city. And Philippine generosity and friendliness never disappeared.

World's 'bargain basement'

The mayor has already made considerable changes. After he was elected vice mayor in 1992, he forced prostitutes to move out of his district. Ermita, running parallel to Roxas Boulevard and Manila Bay, is now filled with restaurants and coffee shops rather than bars of naked dancers, which moved elsewhere in the city.

Atienza said the Ermita area now competes with Makati, the financial center, for more upscale entertainment.

In the last 10 months, he's cleaned up chaotic Manila streets by legalizing 50,000 vendors and giving them rules and boundaries where they must work.

Manila's train station is now a large shopping mall, and Atienza said the city has become "the bargain basement" of the world, with better shopping than Hong Kong. Designer jeans, he says, go for a little over $5.

Atienza sees this as an opportune time to pursue his dream. The Philippines, which in recent years has seen an economic turnaround and real estate boom, was hit least by the Asian economic crisis. Bargain-hunting Asians find the country attractive, as do Americans, whose dollars can buy twice as much as they did a few years ago.

'Sincere in his vision'

Tourists in Manila have increased to about 3 million a year, up from 2.5 million, Atienza said. He wants to increase the numbers more by using shopping as a draw.

And the recently approved Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, allowing U.S. troops to once again hold military exercises there, will give an already stable political environment added stability, he said. That's still important in a country that was wracked with political violence under the late President Ferdinand Marcos.

President Joseph Estrada, also elected last year and the mayor's buddy, is keen on cleaning up Manila as well. Estrada has endorsed a seawall development along Manila Bay that will stretch from the historic and elegant Manila Hotel (Gen. Douglas MacArthur's World War II headquarters) to the Army Navy Club.

Atienza said the government also needs to commit to cleaning up the bay. It has started the effort on the Pasig River, which dumps into the bay.

Manila includes the old walled city of Intramuros, packed with history. Malacanang Palace, a still beautiful capital, is also in Manila, as well as the art and culture centers built by former first lady Imelda Marcos.

One of Atienza's believers is Geminiano "Toy" Arre Jr., director of finance under former Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi. Arre retired early as director of student housing services at the University of Hawaii to volunteer as Atienza's financial consultant.

"He's a very dedicated public servant and sincere in his vision to make Manila again the premier city of the Philippines," Arre said.

Like Estrada, a movie star put in office by poor fans, the mayor has focused on improving the lives of the masses by encouraging them to be entrepreneurs, Arre said.

"He can't do it in his lifetime, but he can make a significant dent," Arre said. "He's already done things no other mayor has done."

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