Life On The Astals Plane

 first published in Manila Bulletin, 2004

In a real estate realm saturated with pretentiously packaged condominiums, or squeaky-clean suburban developments, not too many addresses remain that possess both character and cachet. The Syquia apartments in Malate, with its art-deco trappings, vintage elevator, heavy wooden staircases, and pinstriped doors is in a class all its own. Home to artists, art lovers, politicians, pundits, kooks, weirdos, and various combinations of the abovementioned, the Syquias’ walls provide refuge for personalities that are just too large to live behind any gated community, no matter how exclusive. And from the very start, Cita Astals seemed to fit in just fine.

“The first time I came here was in 1983 with some friends. It used to be like a giant dormitory, a lot of fun,” she reminisces.

An encounter with Cita Astals may not be the best thing to prescribe for the easily intimidated. Her stentorian voice and arched eyebrows definitely add to the daunting Astals Aura. Once inside Cita Central though, the longtime Manila councilor and lifetime artist is a very welcoming and accomodating host. Cita is puzzled why out of all the building’s notable residents, we’ve chosen to feature it’s self-professed “craziest one”. But of course, why should we settle for anyone less?

“I moved in with my boyfriend in 1989. And then I kicked him out and ended up staying,” Cita states succinctly. And who wouldn’t stay? The high ceilings, huge windows, polished hardwood floors, and capacious rooms evoke an era when space wasn’t a luxury, and luxury wasn’t in short supply.

Even with her ex out of the picture, she didn’t always keep all that space to herself. “For a time I’d share the place with friends. If I liked them they’d live in one of the bedrooms for a few months.” She also had the company of her much beloved pet dog, who unfortunately passed away. She tried breaking in a new puppy as a replacement, but that one grew too chew-happy and was returned to sender. Right now, besides her staff, the apartment also shelters several ancient plants that stubbornly thrive on in Cita’s makeshift lanai area.

Cita admits to not really having a plan or philosophy when it comes to fixing up her abode.“I prefer a simple setup. It’s a pretty simple place.” When asked to elaborate about her approach to interior design, she takes on a deer-lost-in-headlights expression. “It’s not meant to be anything. I didn’t really design the house, since I’m not much of a homebody,” she surrenders.

That simplicity also carries over to Cita’s concept of entertaining. “We don’t have big parties since I’m not really a party-thrower. The other people in the building are into that. Although sometimes we have dinners or I hold meetings here.”

Like in her life and career, Cita’s apartment has seen its share of radical shifts. One room in particular has undergone several transformations according to Cita. “It used to be where me and my boyfriend slept together. It was technically his room. One of my conditions if we were to live together is that I have my own room.  Although I never slept there for the 5 years that we were living together. I had, as you may call it, a room and a half!” states Cita, cackling merrily. “The room became an office for a while. It was where I made my book compiling all the ordinances of Manila. But now it’s my bedroom,” she asserts. The room still contains her infamous ex’s bed, which she continues to sleep on.

Cita’s onetime decision to brighten up her walls produced near-incendiary results. “I just wanted a change of color, I was getting tired of white. I wanted a mixture of yellow and orange. I experimented with this wall with the painters, then when we got what I wanted, I left them for a couple of hours.” She returned to find her entire apartment awash in flames, of yellow-orange paint that is. In a fit of creative zeal, the painters had left no wall untouched. Not really wanting to go home to a cabaret every night, Cita left one wall on fire, but had the others repainted a more sedate white and yellow-orange tone.

Scattered about the apartment are “An assortment of stuff I gathered from my travels and what friends have given me.” These range from images of Hindu deities, to Indonesian puppets, Grecian sculpture, oil paintings by local artist-friends, and even a sheepskin rug from Australia. And yet Cita remarks that visitors never seem to fail to zero-in on a set of figures depicting couples engaged in rather lascivious poses.

As we go about poring over her knickknacks, Cita realizes with some amusement that almost all of her furnishings and decor used to belong to friends “All except the electronics and appliances”.

Even her hefty low-slung sofas and seats weren’t sourced from a store. “I bought the furniture from a friend of mine who was leaving the country. He had brought them in from Nepal.  It’s very strong, old wood. This set is around 30 years old. It spent 10 years in Nepal, and 20 years in the Philippines. All I did was have the cushions re-upholstered.” The couch in the hall is upholstered in leather and is for visitors to sit on, while the couch in the sala has cushions of katsa for the lounging comfort of close friends.

Her favorite piece is a solid wooden coffee table set in front of the couch. “You don’t need nails to assemble it. The pieces lock into themselves, like giant wooden Nepalese lego blocks!” Cita exclaims with a throaty laugh.

While we take photos, Cita wonders whether the bright pink top she wears could clash with her blazing walls. “Pink is my working color,” she explains. “Notice that I don’t have anything colored pink in the apartment. This is so that I won’t blend into my furniture!” And with that we unearth yet another one of her rare and quirky design rules.

Although a bit hazy as a homemaker. When it comes to her role as a public servant, Cita’s ideas and contributions are very concrete. “I’ve opened a road. We cleared it, partially put in the drainage and cement. But there’s still another 600 meters to pave. I would like to see that completed,” she states. “I also have an ordinance now to regulate the caretelas. So that they don’t cheat the tourists or be cruel to their animals.”

Cita’s big vision for Manila literally lies on the horizon. “I dream of having a beach in Manila, a Boracay-style beach,” she reveals. Backing her aspirations with action, Cita has actually been working to make her dream real. “We’ll have to treat the water for that to work. That’s why for my latest ordinance, I filed the Manila Water Code charter. So for the first time we’re going to have laws for our water.”

As we steer the conversation away from home and on to city hall, Cita sheds her giddy daze and regains the steel and focus that has made her such a lustrous presence on stage and screen. “The mayor and all the councilors are working together towards the same goal of improving the city,” she proclaims with some pride. “But there’s still a lot of work to be done. We’re always hoping to have more new buildings, new developments in the area. Little by little things get done.” If and when the day comes when it really all gets done, then maybe Cita can finally find the time and inclination to indulge in a bit of domesticity. But politics is impossible to predict, and Cita is just plain unpredictable.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved

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